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A Realistic Generation

The bundles of anxiety that used to be our kids bubbled through the high school parking lot towards parents long used to waiting.  A normal day would never end with something as uncool as a ride from Dad – that’s what Metro Transit buses are for.  But this day they were coming back from a camping trip and had bundles of stuff under tired arms.  The milling crowd was my chance to meet some of my daughter’s friends.

The joys of high school – so much to worry about, so few cares in the world.

It’s taken a week of conversation to decipher who was who that day, creating a small window on the teen world.  So much has changed, so little is different.  But one thing that should frighten everyone is how few of the kids, especially the smart ones, believe that they are preparing for a “career”.  Community college and trade schools, with lower cost than a four year college, are the next destination for many of them.  That’s not laziness, but its exact opposite in energy and realism talking.

Nearly every kid has a friend whose parents are unemployed or underemployed.  The headline rate of 9-something percent runs about half the “U6” or total of people who want more work, pretty much as it always has.  This includes people working part time who want full time work and everything.  That figure of 17 percent, or 1 in six adults, is enough to touch everyone at least indirectly.  But it hides the unemployment rate among 16-24 year olds, which is a full 18% – and if the same ratio for underemployment, we can figure that 36% of kids who want work aren’t getting as much of it as they want or need.

The prospects for working your way through school in this environment are bleak at best.  Kids know this, too.  Among my daughter’s friends the concept of a “career” is more or less a joke – survival is what counts.  They talk about staying flexible and picking up skills as they need them rather than dedicating their lives to a field.

This should be taken anecdotally, the flip side to the stories of kids with little ambition who live with their parents well into their 20s.  But the numbers back up this attitude, and those stats have been horrible for a number of years.  They don’t appear to be on the verge of changing soon, either.  Ambitious, energetic young people are likely to focus on survival rather than a career right now – and for good reasons.

Attitudes, skills, and plans formed when young people enter the work force are likely to define their entire lives.  The prospects for real growth in the future lie in what happens today.  The future of the nation is going to be focused on survival for a long time to come.

For my daughter’s part, she has a plan for a career that is flexible and keeps her options open.  She’d like to be a veterinarian, specifically a bird vet.  College is in her future, and through that process she will develop many options to go into biomed engineering or other related fields.  She’s pretty realistic and flexible, too.  We talk about the sciences all the time and there’s little doubt that there’s a future there of some kind.

What will the economy produce in the way of opportunity for her?  No one can say.  A lot of it she’ll have to make up as she goes, and she knows that.  The friends she has now and their attitudes will shape how she approaches everything that winds up defining her life.  They may not have a lot of great plans but they know the score very well.  Survival is going to count for a lot.

A school camping trip is a chance to get to know each other and pick up some skills that could come in handy if things get really bad.  It’s also a chance for the adults to understand what’s going on a bit better, even if it’s just a casual meeting in the parking lot.  It shows just how much has to be done if we’re going to have an economy that will work for the next generation as well.

Anyone want to reinforce or refute these stories with a few of their own?  

12 thoughts on “A Realistic Generation

  1. If that is the attitude that kids have today I can’t say I blame them. What it means in the long haul is hard to say. They probably won’t have long careers in one field so they probably are doing exactly the right thing for themselves. If more and more of them can’t afford a 4yr college degree that is a serious problem that may come back to hurt them however. It does sound pretty bleak overall but that is how it is.

  2. This made me think of the “GOODE OLDE DAYS” of late summer 1966 when I registered at the University of Minnesota with a two-fold goal; to get a degree in history, and to avoid the draft. I had plans later for military service; but on my own terms–I had also signed up for Air Force ROTC. College was relatively cheap and I could work my way through to supplement my college savings account.
    EVERYBODY except those who were planning on a career in the trades, or as a housewife enrolled in college. For the males the Vietnam War and the draft were the concerns of the day.
    Jobs? As I recall there were recruiters all through our HS senior year for 3M, Honeywell, American Hoist & Derrick (remember them?) and a myriad of other local companies.
    We had the war and the draft hanging over our heads as we left high school, and at least four of my classmates died in Vietnam…but college was cheap and there were jobs.
    [BTW: I lasted a year at the “U” and ended up having a eight-year military career in the Army & Air National Guard]

  3. Anna: I’m with you as far as these kids go. But I think it means a lot more to the Next Economy when there are limited skills defined around surviving. For example: many tell us the Next Economy will rely on a relentless advance of technology – but if fewer people have engineering degrees or serious background in science, how will that happen?

    Jack: It wasn’t too much different in the 80s, except we didn’t have the draft. College was there, many options were affordable, and everyone was encouraged to go into it. I don’t think college is or should be for everyone (which is to say High School should be different, in the end) but what I hear is that kids who a generation ago would have gone to college will not, largely because they don’t see the return on investment and are concentrating on getting by (“survive” is their word, BTW). That’s just not good.

  4. You do some math with the unemployment numbers that gets confusing. You have said before that the ‘headline’ unemployment rate is worthless but used it here and I want to ask you about it. Why is the unemployment rate worthless? I got into an argument about this recently and I didn’t have a lot to say, I was hoping you could help. Thanks. Good blog but pretty disturbing.

  5. Dale: This is a big subject. There are six official definitions of unemployment, called U1 through U6. The first is the “headline” number The last one includes “underemployment”, or people who aren’t working as much as they want to, and is the most comprehensive. It is not broken down by age.

    There are two big problems with U1. The first is that it does not count “Discouraged Workers”, or people who are not actively looking for work. That’s a problem because many of them want or need a job but have given up for now. The other is that it does not include anyone who has worked at all, part time or as a freelancer. Many unemployed people do not have unemployment insurance, especially the young who never had a job in the first place, so they have to work somehow in order to survive – and then they don’t count. So U6 is a better indicator all around.

    In order to estimate U6 among the young I used the typical 2:1 ration, but as I stated above it’s probably much higher – young people never have unemployment bennies to fall back on and usually take just about anything. I’ve heard that roughly 40% is a reasonable figure for 16-24 year old net underemployment and I believe it – but we can justify 36% reasonably. It could even be much higher, but those figures are not maintained.

  6. These kids are going to inherit a huge mess. Debt, no opportunity, no hope and I think selfish values add up to disaster. I bet that if you asked them they are mad at adults and if they want to focus on survival I wouldnt blame them at all.

  7. Sheryl: I haven’t gotten into how mad kids are, but the ones I’ve talked to are just very realistic and focused on what they can do. I agree on the selfishness – no one believes in organizing anymore. That’s been hurting us far more than people ever talk about because no one seems to understand what can happen when people work together. This saddens me far more than anything else, to be honest.

  8. My eighteen year old son is quite optimistic about his future. He recently mapped out a plan to graduate in only three years with a double major from U of M. He claims graduates from Carlson school have a very high rate of job placement, which may be true. I just remind him frequently to get good grades and build his resume however he can while he is there, as I am less confident in his future opportunities than he is. His friends all seem pretty positive about their future careers as well.

    I am much more concerned about my spec ed students and the undereducated youth that populate the school building in which I work. Their futures look pretty bleak to me and surving in the modern economy seems an appropriate focus.

  9. Laurie: I am happy to be countered with a good example! I’m very glad to hear that there are some kids with a lot of confidence because, as I tried to note, my daughter is pretty confident in herself but not completely so. I don’t know how much the Carlson School is valued over a trade like Engineering, but we are blessed with a well-regarded school that’s still mostly affordable. Getting through it in 3 years (as opposed to the usual 5-6) sounds like a good plan.

    I thin kit’s easy to put too much on a 4 yr degree and I hope people don’t go too far into debt to get one, but I also think there’s a real baseline that you have to pick up to be able to do more than survive. Some can pick it up on the streets,to be sure, but college is going to be at least easier. Those who are getting left behind before they even have a HS diploma really are screwed anymore. Jobs where you could grown and learn from the ground up are pretty rare in this non-manufacturing world.

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