A Lost Generation?

A rising generation of young Americans face tough times. We’ll look at the impact, and their way forward.

Employment among young adults between the ages of 16 to 29 was at its lowest levels since the end of World War II. Just 55 percent were employed, compared with 67 percent in 2000. (AP)

Employment among young adults between the ages of 16 to 29 was at its lowest levels since the end of World War II. Just 55 percent were employed, compared with 67 percent in 2000. (AP)

The jobless economy is not easy for anyone who’s looking for work. For America’s rising generation of the young, it can be particularly bewildering. Where do they put their first foot on the ladder? Where’s the ladder?

We’ve got several years of new grads now stacked up, looking for their way into an economic life. And while they wait, they’re getting tagged: lost generation, generation limbo.

This, the same Millenial generation that was called the most optimistic and determined ever. They’re still looking to shine.

This hour, On Point: America’s young and tough times.

-Tom Ashbrook


Andrew Sum, professor of economics and director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University.

Patricia Snell Herzog, postdoctoral fellow in the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University and co-author of Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood.

Matthew Segal, president and co-founder of OUR TIME a national non-profit advocacy group that speaks for people under 30.


Young people today have it rough. The recession has hit them particularly hard. They’re unemployed, or underemployed; they’re moving back home to their parents homes in greater numbers and they’re putting off marriage, childrearing, and home buying as they wait things to improve. All of this has led watchers to call it the “lost generation,” a characterization finds support in the data.

Andrew Sum, Director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University, said that past generations have been deeply effected by economic swings. “Over the past decade, the average young American family has seen their annual income fall by 20 percent,” Sum said. Adjusted for inflation, that means that the average young American family earns only as much as a similar family earned in 1959.

“It is not sustainable,” Sum said. “Young people have been left behind.”

That bleak economic picture has contributed to political non-participation by young people, further compounding a societal response to the problem. “People are so consumed by trying to get by, by trying to pay rent, by trying to pay off debt, by trying to pay for groceries that all of the sudden political engagement and civic participation feels like a luxury,” said Matthew Segal, who heads Our Time a non-profit that advocates for American under the age of 30.

“I often think of a little plane trying to get off the ground and constantly having to return to the runway to try to build up enough speed to take off,” said Patricia Snell Herzog, postdoctoral fellow in the Kinder Institute and co-author of Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood.

Caller Nicole: I’m calling from Boston. I’ve been at Occupy Boston since day one.

Tom Asbrook: You’re one of the people in the streets in Boston outside the Federal Reserve this weekend? What do you see? And why are you there?

Nicole: I here because, personally in my experience as a young adult in this world, has been that there are no opportunities for me. I can barely afford to go back to school after taking a two-year break because I couldn’t afford it. I have unstable housing. I just returned to public house because I couldn’t afford a regular apartment because the rent was too high. And making minimum wage, I just couldn’t afford it. This is a time where there aren’t opportunities for young people. You can see lots and lots of college kids, and lots of young peple that are here occupying with us because we feel that we don’t have a chance in this world. We don’t feel like we’re being heard and that our needs are being met.

Ashbrook: There you are, you’re in the streets. What would you like to see happen?

Nicole: I just want to know that people are listening. I just want to be heard. We don’t have demands yet. I don’t even know if we’ll get demands as a group. But individually, I just want a chance in this world, and I know that lots of other people do. I want a chance to get an education, I want a chance to have a decent place to live, a chance to have food and a future. It’s really as simple as that.

From Tom’s Reading List

New York Times “It’s not so much that these young Americans are living lives of sin and debauchery, at least no more than you’d expect from 18- to 23-year-olds. What’s disheartening is how bad they are at thinking and talking about moral issues.”

National Journal “Students now finishing their schooling—the class of 2011—are confronting a youth unemployment rate above 17 percent. The problem is compounding itself as those collecting high school or college degrees jostle for jobs with recent graduates still lacking steady work. “The biggest problem they face is, they are still competing with the class of 2010, 2009, and 2008,” says Matthew Segal, cofounder of Our Time, an advocacy group for young people. ”

PBS “In record numbers, 20-somethings are delaying big moves like marriage and home ownership — and opting instead to live at home with their parents.”

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