Category Archives: working class

Great NYT Op-Ed on stalling youth opportunity by Jen Silva (UPDATED 7/2013)

Flickr/nfscnnr

Flickr/nfscnnr

One of our post-doctoral researchers, Jen Silva, has a very interesting op-Ed in Sunday’s New York Times that comes out of her research talking to young people in Lowell, MA and Richmond, VA about the challenges for working-class youth today.

Snippet:

In a working-class neighborhood in Lowell, Mass., in early 2009, I sat across the table from Diana, then 24, in the kitchen of her mother’€™s house. Diana had planned to graduate from college, marry, buy a home in the suburbs and have kids, a dog and a cat by the time she was 30. But she had recently dropped out of a nearby private university after two years of study and with nearly $80,000 in student loans. Now she worked at Dunkin’€™ Donuts.

‘€œWith college,’€ she explained, ‘€œI would have had to wait five years to get a degree, and once I get that, who knows if I will be working and if I would find something I wanted to do. I don’€™t want to be a cop or anything. I don’€™t know what to do with it. My manager says some people are born to make coffee, and I guess I was born to make coffee.’€

Young working-class men and women like Diana are trying to figure out what it means to be an adult in a world of disappearing jobs, soaring education costs and shrinking social support networks. Today, only 20 percent of men and women between 18 and 29 are married. They live at home longer, spend more years in college, change jobs more frequently and start families later.

For more affluent young adults, this may look a lot like freedom. But for the hundred-some working-class 20- and 30-somethings I interviewed between 2008 and 2010 in Lowell and Richmond, Va., at gas stations, fast-food chains, community colleges and temp agencies, the view is very different.

Lowell and Richmond embody many of the structural forces, like deindustrialization and declining blue-collar jobs, that frame working-class young people’€™s attempts to come of age in America today. The economic hardships of these men and women, both white and black, have been well documented. But often overlooked are what the sociologists Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb in 1972 called their ‘€œhidden injuries’€ -€” the difficult-to-measure social costs borne by working-class youths as they struggle to forge stable and meaningful adult lives.

The stories of young people growing up today from different walks of life will figure prominent in our forthcoming book on the growing youth opportunity gap in the US.

For those anxious to get their fix now of these stories, read Jen Silva’s book, “Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty(Oxford University Press, 2013).

See also Jen’s piece in Salon re decline of working-class marriages with interesting snippets from her interviews.

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State of economy for less-educated young people compounds growing Opportunity Gap

Pell City 2007 HS graduation; Flick/kwsanders

Pell City 2007 HS graduation; Flick/kwsanders

While parts of the economy have rebounded since the Great Recession of 2008, the effects have been much worse for the poor, and especially the less-educated young Americans, and those not fortunate enough to graduate from college.

Since 2008, the housing market has started to bounce back.

The stock market, for those fortunate enough to have net savings rather than a negative net worth has more than recovered its recessionary losses (pictured is the S&P500 index).

Recovery in S&P500 since 2009 recession

The economy has created 6.15 million jobs from March 2010 through April 2013 (based on provisional numbers for March/April 2013), enough to lower unemployment but only through many people giving up on finding jobs.  The  percentage of Americans employed in the population hasn’t budged over the last 3.5 years and remains fixed at between 58% and 59%. Larry Summers thinks that the numbers of long-term unemployed is the biggest problem facing this country and is at historically unprecedented in the period since the Great Recession of the 1920s and 1930s.

Put this together with the data that David Leonardt released (“The Idled Young Americans“) showing that the impact has disproportionately fallen on young folks.  Moreover, levels of employment among 16-24 year olds, even as recent as May 2013 remain stubbornly at 45%, at levels not seen in the US since the early 1960s.

Our own research on the fact that children born to less educated families are facing a growing opportunity gap.  American young adults from the bottom socioeconomic quarter are graduating from high school or dropping out with less of the hard academic skills or soft non-cognitive skills necessary for life success.  [We find significantly growing gaps between children from the top third or quarter of socioeconomic families and the bottom third or quarter on measures as diverse as involvement in extra-curriculars, involvement in sports, K-12 test scores, obesity, social trust, involvement with religion, social connectedness, volunteering, college attendance, and college completion.]

And the intersection of these two trends — consequences of the current lackluster economy being borne by the young adults and the growing opportunity gap — means that these gaps are borne disproportionately by less educated young adults.

For example, if one looks at employment to population ratios for 25-34 year olds in 2012, it was only 69.8% for those with a high-school degree (but no college), whereas it was 84.4% for those with 4-year college degrees or more.  Another way of putting this is that only 16% of college-educated 25-34 year olds were out of the labor market versus 30% of those with only a high school degree.

And if that were not enough, there is growing body of literature suggesting that experiences of unemployment or involuntarily being terminated from jobs create long-term scarring effects both on the lifetime earnings of these young people, but also their civic and social connectedness throughout their lives.  [See for example Davis/von Wachter or Gregg/Tominey or Brand/Burgard.]

[There is also unpublished data on this scarring effect in: Laurence, James, and Chaeyoon Lim. “The Long-Term and Deepening Scars of Job  Displacement on Civic Participation over the Life-course: A Cross-National Comparative  Study between the UK and the US.”]

We are brewing a recipe for long-term adverse consequences for these young Americans, especially the less educated ones, and our government ought to be POUND-wise, even if it is “PENNY-foolish” in the eyes of others and invest in jobs for these young 16-25 year olds to avoid the much longer long-term adverse effects.

Robert and Lara Putnam on America’s growing class gap

Robert D. Putnam and daughter Lara Putnam (historian at Pitt) comment on the kerfuffle regarding Barack Obama’s inartful description of poor whites being bitter and clinging to religion in response to their bleak economic circumstances.

They note that, while much of the debate has focused on small town vs. big city respondents, the issues really relate to class gaps within the white community not city v. rural.

They asserts that the “growing disparity in formative experiences portends a more caste-like America, in which children’s life chances are increasingly dictated by their parents’ social class. The playing field is tilted more and more against the have-nots.”

As the Putnams note: “The real question is not ginned-up outrage over Barack Obama’s choice of words to describe the very real hardships facing many Americans in towns and cities of all sizes. The real question is whether his optimistic insistence that “Yes We Can” will resonate in those still-struggling Pennsylvania cities and towns that suffered a body blow with the loss of steel mills and factories a generation ago. Mr. Obama’s work as a community organizer on the streets of Chicago was predicated on the belief that even in communities beset by disinvestment, job loss and chronic frustration, self-confidence can be restored, collective bonds can be rebuilt and political efficacy regained.” They indicate that we’ll know soon enough if this message of hope resonates among white working class residents in these devastated PA communities.

The Op-Ed, which appeared Sunday (4/20/08) in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, called “The Growing Class Gap” can be found here.