Teenagers: The lost generation?

Even as federal elected officials show a complete inability to work out immediate economic issues, larger ones loom on the horizon. Five years of recession and economic lethargy have resulted not just in short-term misery for millions of Americans, but long-term damage to their employability.

Teenagers consistently have had among the highest unemployment rates during the past five years, often above 20 percent. In November, despite a national unemployment rate of 7.7 percent, 23.5 percent of teenagers were actively but unsuccessfully seeking jobs.

Unemployed teens have not been receiving on-the-job training. Because Alabama and other states cut costs by reducing expenditures on two-year and four-year colleges, tuition keeps going up. Alabama has few effective tuition-assistance programs, and the mainstay of federal assistance — the Pell grant program — is increasingly restrictive.

The end result is that, even as the economy picks up, a large percentage of our young people will lack work skills.

A generation ago, a hard-working but unskilled laborer could make it into the middle class. He or she could make high enough wages to save money, creating opportunities for education or entrepreneurship. Globalization, technical advances in factories and the demise of unions have doomed most unskilled workers to jobs that barely exceed the poverty line and rarely offer health insurance. Many of those who graduated from high school in the past five years will find themselves in this grim category.

This is, of course, a disastrous problem for those stuck in low-paying jobs and deprived of the capital they need to advance themselves or their children. It’s also a societal problem.

It will cause a further shrinking of the middle class and erode the ability of consumers to lift the nation from cyclical recessions. It deprives employers of the skilled workforce they need to succeed in a global economy.

The solutions, while complex, are urgent. They include a renewed focus on providing access to post-secondary education and health care. Just as the children of wealthy families tend to remain wealthy, those who grow up in poverty tend to stay there. We cannot afford to allow the latest recession to add to the generational poverty that already weighs down our nation.

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Filed under education, Poverty, unemployment

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