11/09/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Some Musings on Labor Day

This Labor Day, with the nation's unemployment rate closing in on 10 percent, the highest level it has been since Ronald Reagan was president, "celebrating the contributions of American workers to the nation's prosperity" sounds about as appealing as drinking a steaming mug of hot chocolate in 95-degree heat.

And though every segment of the economy has been touched by
what's going on, working-class jobs for workers without college degrees, especially those in manufacturing,
have been taking the biggest hits: 136,000 manufacturing jobs disappeared
in a single month, from May to June of this year, and since the recession
started, the nation shed 1.9 million manufacturing jobs. Outsourcing and
automation put downward pressures on the demand for blue-collar labor
during the best of times. However, in the wake of this historic slow-down,
positions that have been absorbed by other workers or taken over by
computer robotic systems are never coming back.

Next time you pick up groceries, take note of how many of the supermarket cashiers have been
replaced by self-checkout stations, or how, when you call your doctor's
office, there's an automated message system instead of a medical
secretary getting you a prescription or test results. Experts warn that
when this recession ends, we will most likely have yet another jobless
recovery, a term that described this distinctively post-industrial phenomenon of economic growth that comes without firms hiring workers.

During recessions, the media pays most of its attention to the hardships of middle-aged workers getting laid off. The reality is that young workers struggle the most in an economic slowdown and face higher unemployment rates than the population as a whole. While 45 to 55 year olds have a lower jobless rate than the rest of the country, 6.8 percent, 25 to 34 year olds, the largest segment of the labor force, face a 10.5 percent unemployment rate, experienced the greatest number of job losses since May 2008 (4.5 million) and remain the most likely to be underemployed (more than 2 million hold part-time jobs when they want to work full-time). The news for the youngest workers is actually worse: 15. 2 percent of 20- to 24-olds and 24 percent of teenagers are out of work and seeking jobs.

New York Times journalist Steve
Greenhouse calls the young people joining the labor force during this historic
recession "Generation R." But the challenges facing kids with high diplomas trying to find work
in a high-tech, globalized economy, started long before this economic crisis.
For decades, politicians and social scientists have been talking about
the knowledge economy and the threat posed by globalization. And yet, far too
high school grads were entering the labor force and expecting to achieve
some variation of a middle-class lifestyle with jobs at Ford or building McMansions.

It's not fair to put this on kids.

The nation's chronic underinvestment in young workers not headed to
four-year college programs, which has been a silent, creeping problem for
decades, now threatens to transform huge numbers of Generation R trapped in a new underclass.

According to the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education's
report card: "The US ranks 15th of 29 developed nations in terms of
degrees granted: For every 100 students enrolled, countries such as
Switzerland, Japan, and Australia award 26 degrees, compared with 18" in
this country. So while the much of the developed world assumes that every
student earning the equivalent of high school diploma will be bilingual
and rushes to prepare their graduates for a global economy where
knowledge of computers, medicine, finance, and engineering will win the
day: millions of American youngsters enter the labor force not knowing how to read an Excel spread sheet oruse a computer for anything but iTunes. Too many young Americans still believe having a strong back and work ethic will take care of them. They are playing by 20th rules in a 21st century economy.

Let us pray that the brutal realities of what many people are calling the great
recession will wake up complacent, parents, teachers, business civic and
leaders, and young people to the dangers of believing in the 1950's version of the American Dream.

During the Great Depression, high school graduation rates increased when young people could not find jobs. Maybe the silver lining for Generation R is that they too will start to commit to higher education. The Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation has called for a
national initiative to get everyone to college.This is commendable, the
problem is, not every young person, will or even wants to follow this
path. And, though everyone recognizes that more Americans need to get to
college, our notion of college should not be limited by the selective,
ivy covered ones. A far more pragmatic, and efficient, use of
resources is to map young people's eagerness to enter the labor force
onto realistic training, for two or three years that would not cost hundreds
of thousands of dollars.

In all the talk of stimulus packages out there, for the auto industry, Wall Street, and
the housing market, we should take this Labor Day
to reflect on what we can do for our young people who are eager to
work but who have been betrayed. It was a mistake to assume that they would find a job and just be okay, somehow. It''s time to start paying attention.