Dick Meister: Young workers and our future

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One of every five U.S. workers aged 18 to 25 live below the official poverty line. More than one third of U.S. workers under 35 are living with their parents because they can't afford to live on their own.There are solutions.

By Dick Meister

(Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV's Newsroom, has covered labor, politics, and other matters for a half-century.)

These are exceptionally painful economic times for the young Americans who will shape our future.

Recent academic and labor studies show, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka notes, that young workers across the board are struggling to keep their heads above water and not succeeding. They’ve put off adulthood ­ put off having kids, put off education. Consider these findings:

* More than one-third of workers under 35 are still living with their parents because they can’t afford to live on their own, and only about one-third of those who do live outside their parent’s home make enough money to set aside some savings after paying their bills. More than 20 percent are unable to pay their bills on a regular basis.

* Another third of the young workers have no health insurance, 80 percent of them because they can’t afford it or because their employer doesn’t offer it. More than one-third have had to put off the professional development courses and other education needed to improve their employment status.

* Two-thirds of those who have managed to earn bachelor’s degrees come out of college owing more than $20,000 in student loans, while one-fourth of the students who enter college are forced to leave in their freshman year because of debt.

The heaviest burdens are born by law school graduates, whose debts amount to more than $75,000, and medical school graduates, who typically owe twice that amount. Paying off those student debts is especially difficult, even if the debtor has a job, because of the low, stagnant wages that are common throughout today’s economy.

Unemployment has hit the young particularly hard. The latest surveys show a jobless rate of 18 percent among younger workers Š twice the general rate and about two million more than were jobless just a year ago. It’s been especially bad for young African-Americans. Twenty-seven percent of them are looking for work.

It’s no wonder, then, that nearly one of every five Americans aged 18 to 24 are living below the official poverty line.

The studies were undertaken in part to compare the economic situation of today’s young Americans with that of young Americans in 1999, when similar studies were done. The young of a decade ago were also in relatively poor shape, but not nearly to the extent of today’s young. By any measurement today’s young workers are in much worse condition.

The AFL-CIO declared that ³the deterioration of young workers’ economic situation in those ten years is alarming.² As the studies pointed out, many more can’t afford to leave home, more lack savings and are unable to pay their bills on time. More lack health insurance, have even higher student loans to pay off, and in many cases simply don’t have enough money to start college or to enroll in training programs that would fit them for better paying jobs, More are unemployed and living below the poverty line on wages
that rarely go up, but often go down.

George Miller, the California Democrat who heads the House Labor and Education Committee, warns that unless young Americans are able to improve their economic status, our overall economic situation also will experience an alarming deterioration far worse than even in today’s time of general economic distress. Fewer younger workers holding decently paid jobs will mean even fewer dollars pumped into the economy and a decrease in production of the goods and services that keep the economy healthy.

As former AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said, Young workers must be given the tools to lead the next generation to prosperity.

Sweeney’s successor, Richard Trumka, has made equipping the young with the vital tool of unionization a top priority. Currently, only about 25 percent of union members are aged 18 to35, but the labor federation hopes to increase that substantially through recruitment drives for young workers led by some 1,000 current young members who are being trained for the task.

The AFL-CIO’s chances seem good. The majority of young workers in the studies believed that workers are much more successful in getting workplace problems solved as part of a group rather than as individuals. They also believed that unionized workers fare much better then non-union workers who hold similar jobs.

Several expert witnesses appearing before the House Labor and Education Committee recently had other recommendations for easing the young workers’ plight and its consequences for the rest of us.

They suggested giving students more information on finding jobs that don’t require a college degree and helping those who do chose college to find one that best suits their economic needs. They said, too, that job training programs should be closely connected to the specific needs of the current and future labor market.

The witnesses also would expand or establish new paid internship and community service programs, and increase student enrollment in community colleges, which are valuable providers of vocational education, with a special emphasis on training for the faster growing sectors of the economy such as health care.

A large order, but it’s our future that’s at stake.

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV's Newsroom, has covered labor, politics, and other matters for a half-century. You can contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com, which includes more than 250 of his recent columns.