We had a visit from our son, Tom, a few days ago. We are always delighted when he can spend some time with us. Not only are his visits a sentimental occasion, when we remember and laugh at highly embarrassing moments from our mutual past, but this is when urgent technical needs are met. This is when batteries and bulbs are replaced, entertainment centers are reprogrammed and elderly parents are generally restored to the world of contemporary lives, to the extent they are deemed capable.
However, this time, Tom, who is an objective and insightful editor of scientific journals, had disturbing news from a world I do not know.
The Internet, he says, is indicating new youth activity this fall.
“You know how we wondered why American young people have been so lacking in anger about their joblessness,” he said. “Well, the signs are they are becoming angry now.”
He told us that the Web world, in the same longitudes that have expressed foreign youth discontent over the last year, are reflecting American youth unhappiness now. He indicated that large demonstrations of unemployed young people might appear this fall in Washington and New York. The unhappiness, which focused on the entire range of our politics, seems most heavily aimed at the Obama administration for having not tried hard enough to improve the employment prospects of U.S. 16- to 24-year-olds.
The chronic unemployment picture in the United States is hardly news. The actual number out of work is hard to determine. The “numbers” have been altered from time to time since the 1960s — some would say to reflect new statistical realities, others to project political agendas more attractively.
But what might be news is this: According to a recent report, the United States has about 12 million young people who are “not in education, employment and training.”
This number bumps right against 50 percent of total unemployment as measured by the larger numbers, which include those unable to find full-time work or those who have left the labor market due to discouragement.
The numbers might be a little larger or a little smaller, but experience shows this is the most potentially volatile group that offers the most serious long-term threat to our national economic well-being.
These are the young people most desperately without hope. Some have dropped out or flunked out of high school or college. Some have accumulated considerable educational debt but no degree or certificate of competence. The most frustrated, however, are likely those who have jumped through hoops, done all that was asked, become highly trained and degreed, and for whom there is no work.
This last group, often living at home or even homeless for all their efforts, now faces an employment gap at a crucial time in their working lives. Without work in their field, their qualifications will begin to deteriorate and they might well be lost to our economy — certainly their careers face grave risk of being permanently stunted. If there is no work to be had at all, they might never become disciplined, productive workers.
For those of us fortunate enough to have spent our youth in a benevolent, generous economy rife with scholarships, paid internships and generously low-interest student loans, the plight of our would-be working young does not seem possible.
The harsh reality outlined above is not only possible, but exists in all its sadness, humiliation and despair. To date, no one in authority has seemed particularly interested in the problem.
The price of neglecting our potential working young will be high in economic loss and domestic tranquility. The American future demands an answer.
Spence Perry, a resident of Fulton County, Pa., is active in Washington County affairs.