Intergenerational Injustice: It's Not Social Security Deficits That Are Destroying the Life Chances of the Young but a Prolonged Slump Compounded by Bad Policies

By Draut, Tamara | The American Prospect, May-June 2013 | Go to article overview

Intergenerational Injustice: It's Not Social Security Deficits That Are Destroying the Life Chances of the Young but a Prolonged Slump Compounded by Bad Policies


Draut, Tamara, The American Prospect


Generational fairness has been a big theme of the austerity crusaders, whose most strident advocates tend to be financiers and business titans of substantial net worth. Yet their calls to radically reduce social investment out of a sense of generational equity diminishes the prospects of young people. The true generational injustice has little to do with the projected public debt and everything to do with the real crisis going on right now. Today's young adults--especially 20- and 30-somethings with young children--face shrinking opportunity and growing insecurity.

The fate of today's infants and toddlers is inextricably connected to that of their millennial-generation parents. Two-thirds of children under the age of 5 are raised by parents younger than 34. The true generational injustice is a threadbare to nonexistent social contract that has made it harder than ever before for the young to either work or educate their way into the middle class--and stay there if they're lucky enough to arrive. The prolonged downturn intensified the struggle; state and federal budget cuts only deepened the damage.

More than three years after the official end of the recession, more than 5.6 million 18- to 34-year-olds want a job and can't find one. An additional 4.7 million young adults are underemployed--they're either working part time when they really want a full-time position, or they've simply given up on their job search. High unemployment is unlikely to abate anytime soon without much greater public investment, direct action to create jobs, or both. If we continue to add jobs at the current rate, it will be 2022 before the country recovers to full employment, and even under those conditions workers younger than 25 will face unemployment rates double the national average--and flat or declining wages.

While much media attention has focused on young college-educated grads who can't find work or are working at jobs that don't require their degrees, the greatest pain accrues further down the income and education ladder. Less-privileged young people are experiencing joblessness at levels not seen since the Great Depression. Young African Americans face joblessness at a rate double that of young whites, and the gaps between those with college degrees and high-school diplomas is even wider. Most children of baby boomers will not be able to achieve even their parents' standard of living.

And Baby Makes Broke

The millennial generation is now in its peak childbearing years, and more than in any previous generation, the cultural and economic expectation is that both mom and dad will be in the workforce throughout their children's lives. Compared to baby boomers and gen-Xers, millennials are much more supportive of policies that would make child care widely more available and affordable and that would provide paid family leave for new parents. With good reason: They earn less than their parents did at their age, they have more debt, and both men and women have come of age expecting to be full participants in both parenting and bread-winning. Our society is not meeting their needs--and as this sizable generation continues to progress through its childbearing stage, austerity measures are likely to make the child-care crisis even worse.

Compared to other rich nations, the United States spends considerably less of its national wealth on child care. The United States ranks 32nd out of 39 rich nations in spending on child care as a percentage of gross domestic product, which means that high-quality care is spectacularly expensive, and as a result, in short supply. Most public child-care spending is targeted toward single parents, delivered primarily through Head Start, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and the Child Care Development Block Grant. But none of these supports is fully funded, so the supply of available slots falls short of the demand for services. State and federal budget cuts have further shrunk the number of children and families who will benefit from early care and learning programs. …

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