Youth Unemployment the End of the American Dream

12/01/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Unemployed for a day, you can make it. Unemployed for a month, you will struggle. Unemployed for six months? Disaster. It's not just how many are unemployed, it's for how long. And in the eyes of a recent college graduate, six months without a job is a catastrophe.

Unemployment will likely remain about the same, maybe a little better, maybe a little worse, for the next 18 months but the "real rate" which includes all those who want to work full time but can't find full time work remains alarming. This is partly because so many have been out of work for so long that they will begin to exhaust their unemployment benefits this month and will be dropped from the regular unemployment count. In other words, if you've been unemployed for too long, the government considers you permanently out of the workforce and stops counting you. You're a permanent job loser. Their words, not mine.

Even worse, unless the Senate (the place where good ideas go to die) follows the House and extends benefits quickly, hundreds of thousands of Americans will lose their benefits in the coming months, adding further misery to the disaster. While consumer spending is needed to jumpstart the economy, unemployment checks are an important component of that spending. We know that those dollars are quickly spent to pay for groceries, rent, mortgages, utilities, and other necessities. I wouldn't want to bet my life on the Senate moving quickly, but extending benefits is an important sign to unemployed workers. In addition, if consumer confidence isn't rising, it could be a dismal holiday season which could lead to more talk of a double-dip recession.

It's especially hard on young workers. In 2008, the average rate of unemployment and underemployment for young people age 16-24 was almost 22%. The Labor Department reports unemployment for young people has more than doubled this year, reaching its highest point since 1948. Depending on who you listen to and how they calculate it, many report that 1 out of every 2 young Americans are out of work.

Why is this so dangerous? Because instead of young workers beginning their careers, earning starting salaries, and learning how to function successfully in the workplace, they are being denied those opportunities. They are not just missing the value of those small, often part-time paychecks; they are also missing the opportunity of learning the value of work.

It is a hard time to start a career. Seeing adults without jobs, watching the unemployment rate reach historic rates, and witnessing long-term unemployment can be depressing. It's not the death of the American Dream, but it sure can look like it. We have to address the unemployment problem, but we especially have to address the problem of persistent youth unemployment. Our futures are inextricably tied to their dreams, and we have to offer them more than hope. If the odds of people under the age of 30 getting a job are 50-50, I know that the odds of the American Dream surviving another generation are even less. No matter what your political or economic ideology is; that's a disaster.

Until the private sector stops retreating from the economy, we need the government. Congress needs to extend unemployment benefits. But we also need to invest in our young people. More funds must be allocated to the core of what's important to this country - Job Corps, AmeriCorps, and the Peace Corps. Job Corps - because we need paths to jobs for non-college bound youth. AmeriCorps - because the service projects are needed by our communities. And the Peace Corps - because today's young people will represent our nation and show the world what is best about America. They will also be tomorrow's ambassadors, international entrepreneurs, and foreign affairs specialists of the future.

These kinds of programs don't just provide young people with hope; it demonstrates that our nation will ensure that the American Dream is alive - and that it needs them to keep going.