Monday, March 19, 2012

Can Young America be Fixed?

Did you know that about 16% of America’s youth (aged 16-24) are unemployed? Compared with the national unemployment rate, which is at 8.3% according to the most recent data, that’s a high number. There’s no question that young people bear a disproportionate burden in a bad economy—as the least experienced, they’re often the last hired, the first fired, and most likely to be taken advantage of with ridiculously low wages and reduced benefits. Add to that a heavy student debt load, and it’s not looking like America’s youth is going to move out of Mom and Dad’s basement anytime soon.

I have a lot of anecdotal evidence about smart, talented, and driven recent graduates I know who are either still living in their parents’ homes a year or two after graduation or underemployed and struggling. I’m sure a lot of my readers do, too.

Last week, I heard about the Young Entrepreneur Council. Their #FixYoungAmerica campaign aims to raise awareness of youth unemployment—and build the case for stronger entrepreneurial education in schools and more support for young entrepreneurs after graduation.

This is a cause that’s pretty close to my heart. I’m especially in favor of encouraging entrepreneurial education in college. Speaking from the perspective of a major in a creative field, I can say that every successful artist in any genre must also be an entrepreneur—and when colleges ignore the real, practical demands of being successful in creative fields (or in any field), they do their students a huge disservice.

I was an acting and creative writing double-major in college. All I wanted to do was pursue my creative goals. After I graduated, I bounced around various office jobs for five years, trying to find something that offered the flexibility to work around my real goals and an atmosphere I didn’t find oppressive. It took me five years to figure out that no business was ever going to give me what I wanted—I had to make it for myself. I think if I’d been introduced to entrepreneurial concepts in college, it wouldn’t have taken me so long to get my life where I wanted it to be.

And I think in this difficult economy, students need this type of education more than ever. Artistic types who’ve been conditioned not to think of themselves as businesspeople need to learn that “business” isn’t a scary concept. It doesn’t mean selling out. And everyone needs to learn early that there may be no company around to take care of them when they graduate—and how to make their own way if there isn’t. Many students never think of opening their own business because it was never presented as a real option to them throughout life. I know that it would never have occurred to me in college.

I know there’s a debate going on in academia about whether college should be focused on job skills and vocational issues or learning and exploration for its own sake. Personally, I don’t see why these two things should be mutually exclusive. I think it would be great for entrepreneurial studies to be woven around any type of degree program, teaching students to apply what they’re learning to making a living in the real world—whether they’re in economics, science, the arts, or any other discipline.

Today, recent graduates aren’t just looking for a flexible schedule and a job doing something they love, like I was. They’re looking for a paycheck, benefits—the basics. In this economy, they might not even get these things if they don’t make their own way. And if they aren’t more supported in terms of loan forgiveness, access to low-interest-rate micro-loans, and other incentives and support.

#FixYoungAmerica is supporting the Young Entrepreneurship Act, a piece of proposed legislation that includes expanded student loan forgiveness programs for entrepreneurs, broadened access to micro-loans, and increased investment in education focused toward entrepreneurship. And you can learn more about #FixYoungAmerica here—and even share your ideas about what needs to be done to help America’s youth survive the recession. Maybe I’ll see you there!


Lori said...

That same Pew study shows that just 54 percent of young people have been able to find employment. I live with two -- 23 and 28 -- one working as a waitress part time, the other unemployed. Both of them are degreed to the eyeballs, yet so far, they have only the paper those degrees are printed on to show for it.

She's been here a year and a half. He's been here since 2009. Here's what they've experienced:

- Sales jobs paying next-to-nothing or nothing (commission only) are plentiful.

- If they want "experience" they're told they have to work an unpaid internship. She has. Twice. Yet none of it counts with the next employer.

- Even the temp agencies expect experience.

- He worked a sales job for a year and a half before the suddenly changed his job from full-time to offsite, commission-only contractor. Thankfully, that move by the employer allowed him to collect unemployment.

- She's decided to create her own career in photography and video/photo editing. So she's reaching out to relatives in the business, putting up her own website, marketing among her friends....

- He's a trained actor, so as he looks for work, he's putting together plays and readings in Manhattan.

College does little to prepare anyone for entrepreneurship. Because of the isolationist aspect of college life, even the professors have a fairly stagnant view of reality. And as you've pointed out, Jen, the reality is there are no starter jobs.

Count me in on this movement. We're living the statistics right now.

Jennifer said...

So true. My sister wants to work in a library or a museum, and she's been struggling for a long time. They're only hiring people with Masters degrees and higher, for entry-level work that will pay $30,000 per year or less. She's doing the math and wondering whether all that debt she'd get from going back to school would be worth it--or whether she could even pay it with such low salaries. The thing is, the market is flooded with overqualified people who want these jobs--and employers only look at people with Masters' degrees because they can. I really think for a lot of young people, entrepreneurship is really the only option--that or languishing in an unchallenging underemployment situation for years.