Letter to the President 9/6/11: On A Potential Lost Generation

President Barack Obama
1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Washington, DC 20500

September 6, 2011

President Obama,

At the time of this writing it’s the day after Labor Day.  You’ve just given a speech in Detroit in which you proposed giving a million construction workers jobs to build bridges, repair highways and perform other much-needed maintenance and upgrades to the nation’s transportation infrastructure.  This Thursday you’re scheduled to give a speech to a joint session of Congress, or at least the members with respect for your office, where you’re likely to also propose building and repairing schools and all manner of other extremely beneficial public works projects to put people to work.

This is all great.  I support this.  Construction was flooded with people during the housing boom and now they’re all out of work, which is a major chunk of unemployment and a huge hindrance to economic recovery.  If we can get some better schools out of the deal all the better.  You’ve gotta spend money to make money, as they say, and just like a mom and pop store taking out a small business loan to expand we need to put money into the economy to grow it.

That said, there’s a huge segment of the population you’re ignoring: Twenty-somethings who, due to economic factors, are unable to get a toe hold in a career-track job, unable to adequately support themselves and, ultimately, unable to truly graduate to adulthood.  This economy is in the process of creating a lost generation and, rather than stopping it, this nation has decided to collectively blame that very generation and make the problem worse.

In addition to any other jobs plans, this must be addressed.

The situation was created by a confluence of societal and economic factors.  We were brought up by the school system from the start to believe that anyone who doesn’t go to college is a failure.  Math and English classes weren’t designed to teach us math or English, but rather to prepare us for college.  So after high school a great many of my peers took out substantial student loans, something I know you’re personally acquainted with, even if their goals and dreams didn’t require college at all.

Four years and tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars later those people were dumped head-first into a recession.  Finding no work on the outside they often went back for a graduate degree, either to delay the avalanche of student loan payments or because they hadn’t been taught to do anything but prepare for more school.

Grad school or no, eventually it comes to pay the proverbial piper and enter the real world.  Unfortunately there are few to no career-track jobs to move into.  401(k) plans have been so decimated that few people in the private sector can afford to retire unless they’re old enough to have caught the tail end of pensions, which means they aren’t vacating jobs for people to move up into, which means there are few ground-floor jobs available.  And when an entry level position does open up the unemployment rate means there’s a more experienced person waiting to fill it for the same wage.

With student loan payments to make, along with substantial credit card payments more often than not, these people are taking part-time work that used to be considered summer jobs for students.  And since all that money goes to repaying debt there’s no money left for rent, which is inflated by the housing collapse to begin with, resulting in the trend of ‘boomerang kids’ moving back in for extended periods after college.

These people, constrained by circumstance and doomed by timing, are considered slackers.  They’re blamed for their fate as if there was another option if only they pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and worked harder.  Those same people who won’t retire, who hire a 35-year-old layoff victim over a 24-year-old Starbucks barista trying to use her degree, think that their experiences 20, 30, 40 years ago still hold true.

The situation takes enough of an emotional toll.  We don’t need reminders and blame too.

We know that when our parents were our age they owned a house and were starting their families.  We know that our grandparents were working for the company from which they would eventually retire.  We know that we’re stuck in a collective extended adolescence.  We want to feel financially secure enough to start families.  We want to have enough extra money to save up for a down payment on a home.

We want to grow up.  But we can’t.

And for the leading edge, a group of people pushing 30, it may be too late.  When the economy turns around and entry-level jobs open up they may get muscled out by cheaper, younger applicants, fresh out of college with internship experience fresh in their minds.

You can stop this.  You can incentivize retirement for those financially able to do so, clearing out a wide variety of skilled positions.  You can forgive student loan payments for the unemployed rather than defer them.  You can subsidize down payments on homes for young people to help us build equity.  There’s any number of things that could give us a leg up into the economy.

I’m one of the lucky ones.  My parents put enough aside enough to cover a degree in economics and were kind enough to let me live with them for quite a few years after that when I couldn’t afford rent.  The part-time job I took after a year of unemployment turned into my dream job as a journalist.  I’m incredibly, unbelievably fortunate.

That said, I’ve essentially given up hope of ever owning a home and even if I was in a relationship I couldn’t even begin to think of starting a family.  But I have no room to complain.  I see people struggling, desperate for any work they can get.  I see former college classmates who haven’t had a full-time job in the six years since graduation despite a desperate search.  I see people, my peers, my friends, who have simply given up on ever having any sort of life, of ever breaking free of this.

Construction workers are important.  Employment figures and job creation numbers are important.  But these people, this generation desperately close to being lost, are also important.  This is the future.  This is your enduring legacy.  This where you decide whether my generation will be tomorrow’s leaders or tomorrow’s burden.

Please, don’t let us down.


Daniel J. Willis

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