06/20/2012 11:45 am ET Updated Aug 20, 2012

The Road to Nowhere

I remember graduating from high school in 1981. There was this sense of possibility, of beginning, of hope, a bedrock belief that my future was bright and limitless, that my generation would soar higher and farther than any before.

Times have changed.

Recent high school graduates in the U.S. face a far bleaker landscape, according to the report Left Out? Forgotten? Recent High School Graduates and the Great Recession, published last week by Rutgers University's Heldrich Center for Workforce Development. The Labor Department reports that 31 percent -- or approximately 1 in 3 high school graduates -- are not in college or employed. The report found that the picture is even worse for those who have graduated since the beginning of the Great Recession: whereas 23 percent of those who graduated before the onset of the recession are unemployed. 37% of those who have graduated since the recession began can't find work. In other words -- it's bad, and it's getting worse.

It's not like it's a walk in the park for those who have found work, either. The report found that only 8 percent of those who had work had found a job on their chosen career path, while the majority reported that they have taken their current job just to get by. So even if you have work, it's most likely just to subsist, not because it's part of a plan for career advancement.

Readers might be thinking at this point that the logical thing to do would be for these young people to go back to college and make themselves more attractive to employers. These young people actually agree: most report they want and need further education. But it's not that easy. Nearly 40 percent of those surveyed said they couldn't afford to go back to college while 30 percent said they needed to work and thus could not enroll in full-time school. Wanting to do something and being able to do something, it turns out, are two very different things.

With 1/3 of their peers unable to find work at all, the majority of the 2/3 who are employed are stuck in dead-end jobs that offer little in the way of career advancement, and limited hope for actually being able to get back into college and improve their personal prospects, this class of recent high school graduates faces a bleak future. And they know it: 56 percent believe they will not live as well as the previous generation, while only 14 percent believe their lives will be better than the previous generation. In other words, by a stunning margin of 4 to 1, today's youth believe their future is one of decline, not one of advancement.

It doesn't have to be that way. Solutions are pretty basic. School systems can revise high school curricula so that it prepares young people for meaningful work in rapidly growing fields like biomedical industries and high tech. State and federal authorities can take steps to make college more affordable so that those who want further education can get it. Businesses can develop internship and apprentice programs that train young people for decent jobs. These are exactly the types of ideas that our Opportunity Nation campaign will be exploring in September at our second national Summit.

The solutions are not impracticable -- they just take leadership and political will. Let's do something to make sure the next generation gets its chance at the good life.

The great American promise is that each generation will have it better than their predecessors. It's the foundation of our social compact. If we don't take action soon, though, we could break that promise -- for the first time in our nation's history. The next generation deserves better.