Young Americans are a generation betrayed. Official unemployment is more than 25 percent for those aged 16-19. That means the real figure is much worse, especially in minority communities and depressed parts of the country. But jobs are scarce for everyone. College students are graduating with record levels of student debt before entering the worst job market for graduates in recent memory.
We're handing them a nation of crumbling infrastructure, lost ambitions, diminished prospects -- and a seemingly endless parade of baby-boomer pop culture references, too. They deserve better than this legacy of dust and ashes. Since we've made such a mess of things, why not hire them to build the nation -- and the future -- that they deserve?
We can do it. Better yet, we can help them do it. A WPA-like program for younger Americans would give them a brighter future by hiring them to rebuild our infrastructure, develop imaginative new business ideas, create alternative energy sources, and become tomorrow's artists and writers. We can give them control over their own destiny, too.
But first, a look at the mess we've created for them.
We've trashed the place
We were supposed to hold this nation in trust to the generations that follow us. It's only good manners to leave something in the same condition it was in when you borrowed it. We were given a nation of schools, highways, bridges, tunnels, and railroads that was well-maintained and growing with every passing year.
Well, frankly, we've let the place go to hell. As Dave Johnson explains, the nation's infrastructure is collapsing. It will take more than $1.7 over the next nine years just to fix our surface transportation. Throw in everything else that's falling apart, and we're facing a nation of ruins.
Put it this way: If older generations had been required to leave a security deposit on this country, they wouldn't get their money back.
We've sold younger generations a bill of goods. We told them that if you work hard and get an education there will be jobs waiting for you when you graduate. But the job market for college graduates has suffered just as much as the overall market, and it's not getting better. In the meantime, the cost of tuition has soared
It's no wonder that the total amount owed on student loans now exceeds credit card debt in this country. Student loans have led to another bank-fed bubble, this time in tuition costs, that has enriched Wall Street and forced young people into starting their work lives with record levels of debt... and no work.
Worse, we've left them with no way to earn money just when the time has come to pay the piper... the Pied Piper of Hamelin, that is. The original Pied Piper led the village children over a cliff with his flute. This one has led the youth of America over a cliff of debt with a flute song of prosperity and jobs.
Unlike his fictional counterpart, this Pied Piper is real. He's Wall Street, he's the government -- and he's us.
Teenaged (and Twentysomething) Wasteland
The unemployment situation seems unrelentingly grim for young Americans. The jobless rate rose in 28 of 50 states last month. They're entering their working years with a 25 percent unemployment rate, and the figues are much worse for minority communities. What's more, studies show that a young person's lifetime earnings will be affected by what she or he earns in the first few years of working life.
There was a time when young people could find work. And they didn't just have jobs -- they had possibilities. Homes, cars, and fuel were affordable. They have choices, too -- about where to live, what kinds of careers to pursue, and what kind of future they wanted for themselves.
When it came to artistic endeavors -- literature, music, theater, film, and visual arts -- careers were always difficult, open only to the most talented, the hardest working, and the luckiest. But at least previous generations had opportunities. Today the arts have been subjected to decades of withering contempt, along with lost revenue as traditional media outlets failed to adapt to the Internet and other new technologies.
It is, in the words of an old punk band called the Adverts, "no time to be 21."
A Build-It-Yourself Future
These are daunting problems, but they have solutions. Our six-point plan is ambitious, but we do "ambitious" in this country. We did it with the Works Progress Administration in the 1930's and we can do it again. Here's how.
#1: Rebuild Our Infrastructure
Let's hire young people to work side-by-side with older and more experienced workers. Together, the generations can rebuild our roads, bridges, highways, and schools. As they do, younger people will learn new skills from their older colleagues. Older workers who have survived the bruising experience of long-term unemployment will feel the pride and satisfaction that comes from passing on your skills to others.
And the money they both spend will stimulate a struggling economy and get in back on a growth path. That paves the way for a future where those younger workers' new skills will continue to be in demand.
#2: Reinvigorate Our 'Brain Resources'
Too often bright young people ignore or abandon certain professions because there is no clear career path, or because academic life seems too insecure in a nation that's cutting academic jobs and pay -- even, paradoxically, as tuition costs soar.
The academic life is vital to a health country. It's a way to germinate ideas that are clear paths to new economic growth -- ideas in computer programming, telecommunications, mathematics, materials science, and dozens of other fields.
But it's also a place to explore ideas that don't have obvious commercial benefit. Some of them will, eventually, in unexpected ways. (Some sociological theories about social networking come to mind.) But others never will. They're simply ways to make us brighter, more creative, and more well-rounded as a people. We'll need those qualities as we face an increasingly uncertain future.
#3: Create the Businesses (and Industries) of Tomorrow
Entrepreneurs are familiar with the concept of "incubators" -- places where young people can go to develop new ideas and turn them into thriving businesses. Venture capitalists have subsidized very successful ones, especially in information technology.
Our country should be equally ready to "incubate" new industries -- and to help young people become the industry leaders of tomorrow. Our "youth WPA" should create spaces where smart young people can pursue business ideas in all fields.
They should be encouraged to apply for these opportunities by submitting proposals that are judged on the following criteria: Job-creating potential (in the U.S.), imagination, innovation, and contribution to the overall economy.
Stalix, a technology group, has rounded up some studies on jobs and green energy. For solar energy, according to one study, 20 manufacturing job-years and 13 installation job-years are created for each megawatt's worth of panels installed.
As Stalix observes,"the majority of jobs created are white-collar or highly-skilled craft labor... a large number of indirect jobs are created in supporting industries... Statistics show that for every job created by the PV industry, between 1.8 and 2.8 jobs are created in other segments of the economy."
Stalix also cites a Department of Energy reports which shows that green energy jobs are "labor-intensive, so they generally create more jobs per dollar invested than conventional (energy)... and they use primarily indigenous resources, so most of the energy dollars can be kept at home."
Who better to perform these jobs than trained young people? They're the ones who will be around to maintain and repair these new, green energy sources in the decades to come.
#5: Create the Arts of Tomorrow
Imagine a government body with a name like "The Department of the Treasury Section of Painting and Sculpture" or "The Treasury Department Fine Arts Section." They both existed -- during the years when the Federal government responded broadly and effectively to the Great Depression.
President Roosevelt's administration eventually developed a program called "Federal One" that included five divisions: Art, Music, Theater, Writing, and Records. Each employed thousands of people who were able to keep the arts alive and create new and innovative forms of expression. Many of the people who contributed to the country's billion-dollar entertainment and publishing industries worked for these programs.
This was also the period when American culture became a dominant world force, with unexpected -- and incalculable -- value for U.S. global strategic interests.
Why not create a "Federal One" for young Americans? Statistically, their unemployment problem today is a grave as the nation's was during the Great Depression. And we would be contributing to the next century of American culture.
#6: Give Them a Say in Their Own Future
If we make this initiative a two-year project, the first year can include a series of elections of "youth representatives" from all segments of society that will meet and decide the second year's funding and programs. It would be relatively easy to organize and fund those elections using Internet technology and other modern tools.
And they're bound to make better decisions than their parents did.
Finding the Money
Some people may say there's no money to pay for this initiative. But total student debt in this country will reach the one trillion dollar mark in the next year. As we said in the beginning, these debts were incurred with broken promises. Much of that money is owed to the government itself, and billions are owed to the banks we bailed out at taxpayer expense.
Why not use some of these debts to make those promises come true? It seems only fair. They may owe this money -- but we owe them much, much more.
It's time to treat young Americans decently. And when we do, the money they receive will be pumped back into the economy to benefit the rest of us, too. We'll be building a better future for our kids, giving them a country worth living in, and improving today's economy.
That makes sense, but here's what matters even more: It will fulfill our commitment to the future. It means they'll inherit the kind of country we older Americans inherited. Isn't that the kind of country we want to be? Isn't it that the life we promised them?
It's time to make good on our promises.
(This post is part of the "Big Ideas to Get America Working" series.)
Richard (RJ) Eskow, a consultant and writer (and former insurance/finance executive), is a Senior Fellow with the Campaign for America's Future. This post was produced as part of the Curbing Wall Street project. Richard also blogs at A Night Light.
He can be reached at "firstname.lastname@example.org."