“Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life, rather than a Monday-to-Friday sort of dying.”
Pulitzer Prize winning author Studs Terkel wrote this in his classic oral history Working, and is the kind of observation about our work lives that you don’t hear much in our current, more quiet-desperation economic times. Millions of Americans remain out of work, levels of inequality and poverty are at historic highs and we are more likely to focus on having a job at all rather than finding meaning and purpose in the work we do.
You have to read between the lines of the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation’s important new report, Youth and Work: Restoring Teen and Young Adult Connections to Opportunity, to find this deeper existential question about the value of work. But since this report focuses on youth, the daily-meaning-question haunts the advocacy organization’s publication nonetheless: What does a young person internalize about the society they live in when they grow up during an economic crisis?
The report provides some definitions to our language of crisis:
Youth employment is at its lowest level since World War II; only about half of young people ages 16 to 24 held jobs in 2011. Among the teens in that group, only 1 in 4 is now employed, compared to 46 percent in 2000. Overall, 6.5 million people ages 16 to 24 are both out of school and out of work, statistics that suggest dire consequences for financial stability and employment prospects in that population. …
The past decade has been the most challenging in 50 years for young people seeking to navigate the transition to adulthood, earn a degree, get a job and stand on their own financially. The employment rate for youth ages 16 to 19 dropped precipitously — down 42 percent since 2000. More youth than ever — 2.2 million teenagers and 4.3 million young adults ages 20 to 24 — are neither in school nor working. Additionally, 21 percent —1.4 million — of those young people out of school and out of work are young parents who must take care of their own needs and those of their children.
Why are so many youth disconnected?
“Disconnected” has become the vogue term—equal parts art and social science—to capture our generational anxiety about what we shall reap from those both not in school and not in a job and growing up to inherit the earth in our prolonged Great Recession. (“Discouraged” is the analogous federal government official designation for the adult population who have simply given up looking for work and—perversely—are no longer counted in the official unemployment numbers. Disconnected indeed.)
You get a more nuanced articulation of the meaning of “disconnection” and its consequences than found in the report in this excellent recent video from Baltimore’s Wide Angle Youth Media, “More Than Jobs”:
What also haunts our local analyses of the youth disconnection problem is the growing awareness that the disconnect is not limited to Baltimore or the United States. The United Nation’s International Labor Organization (ILO) describes the situation this way: “The world is facing a worsening youth employment crisis: young people are three times more likely to be unemployed than adults and over 75 million youth worldwide are looking for work. The ILO has warned of a ‘scarred’ generation of young workers facing a dangerous mix of high unemployment, increased inactivity and precarious work in developed countries, as well as persistently high working poverty in the developing world.”
If you spend any time reading about “disconnected” youth outside the United States you regularly find references to the “Arab Spring,” to fears of toppling governments, of violence, crime, and to increasingly shrill and anxious calls to action from adults.
It’s interesting also to hear the echo of the Baltimore voices captured by Wide Angle to these voices from around the world captured by the ILO:
The Casey Foundation report sketches some ways forward and are excellent as far they go:
- National policy makers need to “develop a national youth employment strategy.”
- Communities and “funders” need to “align resources for collective results.”
- Practitioners need to “scale up successful pathways to work and credentials.”
- Public and private investors need to “support enterprise development that produces new jobs.”
- Employers need to create “career pathways and jobs for young people.”
- Policymakers and practitioners need to take a “two-generation approach” to the problem of disconnected youth.
If however we want our solutions to be commensurate with our rhetoric of crisis, our deeply held anxieties, and the voices of young people talking to the future, more than the report’s sketch is necessary.
A broader vision forward would include acknowledgement, for example, that–as Adam Davidson describes in the New York Times Magazine–we don’t have a skills mismatch problem in the current economy as much as we have a wage problem. Similarly, the reality is, as the National Employment Law Project describes, low-level, service economy jobs are the future for many of today’s young people and what we need is to provide a way for such workers to collectively bargain with their employers for both better pay and dignity in their work.
This would just be a start to an honest conversation with young people about our generational responsibilities and their future work lives. The disconnected young need access to jobs, to work, access to their daily bread and a way to find meaning in a society that has little place for them, a society that has disconnected them.
Lastly, a re-connection that I hope is obviously in need: I propose that henceforward when journalists write about, when lawmakers pontificate on, and when citizens bemoan Baltimore’s “crime problem” we all simultaneous invoke this crisis of the disconnection of young people. I propose we make an immediate connection to the kind of world we have created and to the one we want young people to inherit.