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Diminishing Returns

Philadelphia Inquirer on March 31, 2012
By Alred Lubrano

Expectations were high go to college, get a degree, land a good job. But for Generation Y, the payoff has been frustrating, the debt crushing.

Throughout the presidential campaign, each of the candidates has invoked the American Dream.

The venerable notion that hard work leads to prosperity – and that every generation does better than the previous one – has long been a rallying cry that tells us who we are and pulls us forward as a nation.

But for young people these days, the American Dream is imperiled.

A forever-altered economy, combined with a seemingly unending recession, is impeding the path to adulthood and prosperity for the “millennial generation” – about 80 million people ages 18 to 34.

In Philadelphia, as elsewhere, young adults struggle with the highest unemployment rates of any age group and with unprecedented levels of college debt.

High school graduates and dropouts face lives of diminishing prospects; college graduates clutch somewhat sturdier umbrellas against the storm.

Although college has never been more vital to success, degrees aren’t worth what they were a generation ago: There are 80,000 bartenders in America with B.A.s.

“I was the first in my family to go to college, and it made me feel invincible,” says Alyssa Snavely, 31, an unemployed Center City resident with a psychology degree from Temple University.

“Then I was laid off from a medical-caseworker job. Now, I’m going for jobs like snack-bar attendant and not getting them. Seriously. I get a little scared.

“Maybe my generation expected too much, but are we not supposed to expect anything?”

Like a water-main break that shows just how weak the infrastructure below the street is, the recession blew a big hole in the economy, exposing the underlying cracks that have developed over the last 30 years.

Globalization and new technologies have shifted much of the U.S. economy from the production of vital goods to a service-based collection of jobs like selling clothes, foaming milk for coffee, and tending to the hygiene of the elderly.

Years of swamp-stagnant wages and the systemic erosion of unions – which historically bumped the working class up a notch or two – have taken their toll. Men with only high school diplomas in 2010 actually made less money than their counterparts in 1980: $30,000 vs. $39,750 in annual salary adjusted for inflation, according to calculations by Demos, a New York nonpartisan think tank.

In previous generations, a blue-collar job could easily propel a family into the middle class – with a house, a yearly vacation, and the chance to eat steak in a restaurant on a Saturday night.

But all that is infinitely harder these days for people facing what Yale University economic-policy expert Jacob Hacker calls “immobile social mobility, and the most uncertain economic conditions in decades.”

While U.S. unemployment is 8.3 percent, unemployment for 20- to 24-year-olds is 13.8 percent – the highest rate for any group in America. Unemployment for 20-year-olds reached 19.4 percent in Philadelphia in 2010.

Since 2010, just 54 percent of young adults ages 18 to 24 have been employed, the lowest level since 1948, when the government began keeping track, federal data show.

Unlike their parents, millennials – also called Generation Y – are starting out with greater responsibility for their own health insurance and retirement. Young adults, in fact, remain the most uninsured group in the United States.

And if they decide to go to college, millennials must face a new reality.

Tuition and fees tripled

As devalued as diplomas are, they’re also infinitely more expensive to attain. In the last three decades, tuition and fees have tripled (after adjusting for inflation) for all public and private nonprofit colleges and community colleges.

Meanwhile, the federal Pell Grant, which in 1980 paid for 69 percent of a public four-year education, covers less than one-third today.

Making college more expensive are states like Pennsylvania and New Jersey yanking dollars from public four-year colleges and community colleges, where the bulk of American students matriculate, education experts say.

At the same time, colleges are spending more on upgrading their campuses to attract students.

The result: Students have to borrow a lot of money. Along with their diplomas each May, two out of three graduates are handed a staggering load of student-loan debt, averaging $25,250 – the highest in U.S. history.

In Pennsylvania, student debt is more than $28,000, fifth-highest in the nation. It’s about $23,000 in New Jersey.

Like mortgages lugged around for life, the total cost of all student loans is nearing $1 trillion, exceeding all U.S. credit-card debt. And unlike credit cards, student loans can follow you to the grave and can’t be discharged in bankruptcy.

“By the time I’m done with law school, I’ll have $170,000 in debt,” says Mac Robertson, 26, a third-year student at Rutgers School of Law-Camden, who lives in Haddon Heights. “That’s a heavy load. It’s impossible not to feel trapped.”

The only thing more onerous than student debt is student debt without a diploma. That worst-of-all-worlds scenario constitutes everyday life for many of the unfortunate 43 percent of all four-year college students who start school but never complete it.

Even for those who graduate, loans aren’t easy to pay back. That’s because finding decent-paying work these days is “a disaster,” according to St. Joseph’s University sociologist Maria Kefalas, an expert on the effects of the recession on millennials.

“Parents around the Main Line are calling each other, asking if they know of any jobs for their kids,” she says. “But for legions of college kids, there’s nothing. What’s distinctive is that so many kids with good college credentials can’t get jobs.

“Graduates move into their parents’ basements after spending $200,000 for a degree. This economy is a game-changer.”

Living at home is becoming more commonplace for late-launch young people compelled to curtail dating and postpone marriage, children, and all that it means to be an adult. Meanwhile, Mom and Dad must be financiers, hoteliers, and cheerleaders, as many parents sacrifice their own financial well-being to keep this generation afloat until it can advance on its own.

More and more jobs – even if they’re true blue-collar like auto repair – will require some kind of college or postsecondary training, says Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. “The only thing more expensive than going to college is not going,” he says.

“Kids are damned if they do, damned if they don’t.”

Last month, a group of millennials known as the Young Invincibles kicked off a two-month, 18-state bus tour called “Campaign for Young America.”

With an eye toward the presidential election, the Gen Y lobbyists are looking to push the candidates to address unemployment, debt, and tuition. Their message: Youthful promise cannot be choked off before it is ever realized.

Lately, the economy has been showing nascent signs of improvement. But it’s not clear whether conditions will change enough to lift a generation whose numbers include the largest public and private high school graduating class in U.S. history – the 3,318,770 members of the Class of 2008-09.

For so many young people, what’s ahead, at least in the near term, appears to be a rugged road.

“It looks like this is the first generation in America worse off than the previous one,” says University of Pennsylvania sociologist Frank Furstenberg, director of the MacArthur Foundation’s Network on Transitions to Adulthood.

Not everyone agrees. “To say they’re worse off is a bit overwrought,” says Ohio State University economist Randall Olsen. Still, he acknowledges, “young people are facing an absolutely horrible labor market.”

Nevertheless, Olsen and others say, it’s premature to predict how a generation whose oldest members are not yet 35 may fare. Anything can happen, and their story is far from over.

Regardless, Furstenberg continues, “one of the most dramatic changes of this generation vs. others is this: It’s a longer haul to becoming an adult. And I can’t see this pattern changing in the near future.”

‘We had faith’

Laura Wesolowski has problems Big Bird never warned her about.

Back in Cleveland where she grew up, Wesolowski – 29, educated, and unemployed – would watch