As a former college professor, I can remember the way the holidays used to be. Semesters would draw to a close, the students would stress over finishing finals and turning in papers, and the campus would quickly empty. Students would head home to visit parents, family, and friends. They'd sleep in, eat home-cooked meals, and come back with new clothes and fancy gadgets. Graduates would get their first job but continue to visit home over long-weekends, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. It was fun (at least to a point) and they'd make enough to afford the travel -- at least at the holidays.
That feels like an old black and white movie these days. For today's college student, the holiday break visit starts to wear a bit thin. Instead of graduating in four years, the typical student is now looking at five or six. Worse, their tight budget might no longer withstand the cost of gas, car repairs, flights, or even the necessary days off work. It is one thing to borrow tens of thousands of dollars to cover spiraling tuition; it is another to finance travel, gifts for your cousin, and holiday party outfits.
And that is just the beginning. That new, post-graduation job might cover the rent for a crammed apartment with a few roommates. And it might also cover the student loan monthly payments. But when paychecks get smaller as health insurance premiums get higher it will be perilously difficult to also cover a trip back to the old homestead.
That, of course, assumes that you have a post-graduation job. The dismal job market makes it a real possibility that you never got a job. Or, if you did, it was an hourly wage job, or one that didn't even require the college degree you're paying off. You could also have gotten one, and promptly been laid off -- and stayed that way, as the youth are disproportionately represented among the long-term unemployed.
Indeed, it may have been bad enough that you don't need to head back for the holidays -- because after you graduated, without a job, or one that pays enough, you're living back at home. That's bad news for your parents, worse for you, and even more worse for the economy as a whole. Over 30 percent of 18-34-year-olds are living with their parents right now. Of those who have a job, 25 percent are still living at home.
According to Trulia, the U.S. economy missed out on 2.4 million new households in 2013. When you form your own household, you not only get the luxury of privacy and new responsibility, you also make other key investments. You buy new furniture, hire movers to carry the couch up the stairs, and call a plumber to install your new toilet. These have ripple effects throughout the service and manufacturing sectors of the economy.
When Uncle Bob asks you how life is post-graduation at the Christmas Eve dinner table, it's hard to answer. You're paying off $40,000 in student loans for an English degree, but working at the local coffee shop making minimum wage during the day and waitressing at night, and coming home to a group house with six roommates. Who's to blame? And what's there to be done?
Here's a holiday gift: reality. The government is not the solution to the many ailments of this generation. Yes, the government could do better. It could stop running a stale playbook of stimulus (how much did that help students), transfers (students want a job, not food stamps), and regulation (it would be nice to be able to afford a home loan in the foreseeable future). It could instead undertake key fundamental reforms to our education system (make dollars go further, equip our students with skills that employers need), entitlement programs (preserve the existence of Social Security so that when today's 22-year-old retires, they have the security), immigration policy (bring in start-up businesses who will hire our graduates), tax systems (attract global companies to this side of the Atlantic who will employ thousands), and regulatory burden (lower the barriers to entry for companies). All of these would permit the economy to grow at historically acceptable rates, to open up jobs for college grads beyond those with a software engineering degree, and allow for raises to those who need it most.
But even piecemeal improvement might make it possible for new businesses (the missing element in this recovery) to jumpstart hiring. The 2014 holiday season would be brighter with more young, independent households starting and improved employment. It might take longer to tame student debt and fix health care, but hope springs eternal.
Indeed, there might be a return to strong economic growth and higher incomes. Which will be useful when the bill for the federal debt comes due.
Happy holidays to America's young.