05/19/2009 11:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

It must SUCK to graduate right now

Nate Loewentheil, Roosevelt Institution
Karlo Barrios Marcelo, Future Majority

The heat of the youth joblessness crisis is set to spark a country-wide economic wildfire as students graduate and youth of all backgrounds go in search of their first jobs, internships and other summer opportunities.

As high as the stakes might be, some in Washington are out of touch. Political talk about burdening future generations with the debt accumulated from government spending misrepresents the economic reality of young Americans. We're being burdened with debt right now. More than two-thirds of all college students graduate with debt, and the average student owes more than $22,000. And that doesn't count the more than 20% that owe $7,000 or more to credit card companies.

College is an investment, and in ordinary times we would rely on our earnings to pay off these loans. But these are no ordinary times. Students who graduate during a recession earn 9% less than they could have expected during flush days. And, according to a study from the National Bureau of Economic Research, the earning impact lasts a full decade.

READ AGAIN: Students graduating right now will not full recover for ten full years.

It's hard not to agree with economists who suggest that today's young Americans are the first generation that will be less well-off than their parents.

It's true that everyone is suffering right now, and many people need help. But young people are being hit the hardest. Youth unemployment has risen for the 8th straight month, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and is more than 9% higher than the rest of the working-age population. If we are serious about continuing the American dream, then we need to harness the unique skills and experiences of today's youth and help put them to work.

We're not helpless. Young people are eager to join the workforce, and willing to go out on our own when jobs aren't available. Just this morning, USA Today wrote about young entrepreneurs innovating to meet the demands and challenges of the moment.

But that's not enough. We can't expect all young people to launch their own ventures. We need public action. We need to match the investments that young people are making in themselves, and help our generation build the new economy our country needs. We're well positioned: our generation, 80 million strong, is diverse, technologically savvy and climate-conscious--a perfect match for the global economy in which we must compete and collaborate.

Some leaders are finally responding. For example, Governor Schwarzenegger launched a California Green Corps last March, which will connect at-risk youth with green jobs training. Conceived as a public-private partnership, corporate sponsors have not yet committed any funds to the pilot program.

On the opposite coast, Governor Patterson has come out in support of youth employment. Federal stimulus money is starting to makes it way into state budgets, and New York will receive nearly $100 million, all of which will go towards combating youth unemployment. These are just temporary jobs, however, so the long-term plan of training and incubating is still missing.

The states are not enough. We need federal action to encourage and support young entrepreneurs, to increase job training, to provide support for areas of economic growth where young people will add the most value. Critical areas of our economy can be filled by our generation; we're ready to build new technology and communication systems, launch green businesses and create a new preventative healthcare system. We just need a little boost. Our future will be built by our generation--let's make sure we have the foundation we need.

If you're interested in joining the effort to economically empower young people, check out Our mission is to unite young Americans to own and direct their own economic reality.