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The Green Light Flickers

[Guest post by James Downie]

A few days ago, the New York Times ran a profile of Scott Nicholson, "24, a graduate of Colgate University, winner of a dean’s award for academic excellence," and a man without a job. 

The daily routine seldom varied. Mr. Nicholson, 24...spent his mornings searching corporate Web sites for suitable job openings...Over the last five months, only one job materialized. After several interviews, the Hanover Insurance Group in nearby Worcester offered to hire him as an associate claims adjuster, at $40,000 a year. But even before the formal offer, Mr. Nicholson had decided not to take the job.
Rather than waste early years in dead-end work, he reasoned, he would hold out for a corporate position that would draw on his college training and put him, as he sees it, on the bottom rungs of a career ladder...
But as the weeks pass, Scott Nicholson, handsome as a Marine officer in a recruiting poster, has gradually realized that his career will not roll out in the Greater Boston area — or anywhere in America — with the easy inevitability that his father and grandfather recall, and that Scott thought would be his lot, too, when he finished college in 2008.
“I don’t think I fully understood the severity of the situation I had graduated into,” he said, speaking in effect for an age group — the so-called millennials, 18 to 29 — whose unemployment rate of nearly 14 percent approaches the levels of that group in the Great Depression. And then he veered into the optimism that, polls show, is persistently, perhaps perversely, characteristic of millennials today. “I am absolutely certain that my job hunt will eventually pay off,” he said.
For young adults, the prospects in the workplace, even for the college-educated, have rarely been so bleak. Apart from the 14 percent who are unemployed and seeking work, as Scott Nicholson is, 23 percent are not even seeking a job, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The total, 37 percent, is the highest in more than three decades and a rate reminiscent of the 1930s.

Two points here. First, the Times's attempt to make Nicholson's troubles a sob story was rightly called out by many of their readers as more than a little silly: $40,000 is a perfectly good starting salary, and nothing would prevent him from looking for a job more in line with his interests once he has a steady source of income. Furthermore, the Times, in typical "hide the special circumstance until the very end" style, waited until the last page to note that Nicholson was well on his way to a military career until he was suddenly washed out due to health reasons right before graduation, a sudden change of plan that most soon-to-be-grads don't have to face.

Second, though, with all that being said, the statistics cannot be denied: the current crop of young adults is facing one of the worst job markets in decades, and most of them are not nearly as well off as Scott Nicholson. Add this to the still-increasing levels of student debt, and falling levels of income even for those who do have jobs, and it's hard to blame young Americans for wondering if their "leaders" are looking out for them, and especially if Obama cares about solving their issues.

Of course, Obama's term has given his young supporters several important victories, including the new health care law, and major improvements in the federal student loan system. And yes, the youth vote is already showing troubling signs of reverting to its traditional apathy just in time for midterms. Yet those victories are of little help to the millions of young unemployed, and this administration, despite kicking off its midterm campaigning with an appeal to young adults, scarcely followed up on said appeal, instead spending most of its most recent campaigning assuaging Wall Street. As with Hispanics, the benefits of keeping this demographic, which voted 2:1 for Obama in '08, voting Democratic are huge - in the short-term, turnout could make the difference in keeping Nancy Pelosi in the speaker's chair, and, in the long-term the New Deal generation, which grew up voting for Roosevelt, was the most liberal generation up until the millenials. Not much is required: a renewed push for the larger stimulus package, to prevent a double-dip, would of course be welcomed, as well as temporary job programs targeted at out-of-work youth. I'm particularly partial to Robert Reich's suggestion of creating a Civilian Conservation Corps-like program to help clean up the oil spill.  (If nothing else, that'll give grouchy old people a chance to complain "they'll never last a day out there. Why, back in my day, etc., etc.") Otherwise, Obama and the Democrats could be ruing the lost opportunity for years to come.