Remember in the last few months leading up to the 2012 presidential election how everyone breathlessly awaited each jobs report? Any change, even of one tenth of a percentage point, was greeted as a glorious victory or a crushing defeat and extrapolated into a long-term economic forecast. What happened to all that attention? Or was President Obama correct when he suggested that the country should resign itself to the fact that a shabby economy is the “new normal,” at least while he’s in charge?
Just before the election the unemployment rate was 7.9 percent, and now, in the summer of 2013 it’s 7.4 percent, still well above the average unemployment rate before the recession. But aside from being fodder for a political football game leading up to an election allegedly focused on economic concerns, what do “jobs” numbers mean in relation to everyday life in the real world? What do these numbers feel like?
It seems lately that this question can be most easily answered by young people, because for them the numbers mean insecurity, fears about the future, hopelessness, and maybe a sprinkle of desperation.
Among the youngest group of youth interested in employment, teenagers, unemployment has jumped 5.3 percentage points from 2008 to 2013, from an annual average of 18.7 percent to 24.1 percent. Admittedly, the range of jobs one can hold as a teen is limited, but it used to be that a part-time job during high school and college was just a place-holder, an opportunity to earn discretionary income for movie nights and new clothes while cultivating a strong work ethic. And it also came with the promise that better circumstances were on the horizon once a college degree was earned.
Scarily, it seems that a college degree is no longer a guarantee of immediate upward social mobility and earned income. The Center for College Affordability and Productivity reported that approximately half of America’s recent college graduates work jobs that do not even require a college degree. In other words, college grads are reaching down and snapping up jobs that American high school graduates used to take. This effect is rippling through every strata of education level due to the economic contraction and stilted, labored recovery that may not ever actually occur. Jobs that college graduates apply for are being taken by those with graduate degrees, and job opportunities that call for three to five years of relevant work experience are filled by those with seven to ten years of experience who have been recently laid off and are willing to settle for less.
The president’s answer to this crisis seems to be a never ceasing call to action for more young people to enroll in college. Well, from 2000 to 2010, the number of full-time undergraduate students increased by 45 percent, rising from 9 million to 13.1 million. And in December of 2009, a Time magazine article correctly stated that, “For many Americans today, a trip through college is considered as much of a birthright as a driver’s license.” So, the country understands that increased education levels are a positive thing. But graduates need an economy that welcomes them into a robust job market to make the effort (not to mention the expense) worth it.
Sadly, the uncontrolled growth of national debt on the federal level mirrors the rise in student loan debt. The vast majority of students are compelled to take on a very large amount of debt at an early age, and 20 percent of households have outstanding student loan debt. In years past higher education was a wise investment, but now it seems a risky one. It is unclear when the fog of unemployment will lift from the future of an entire generation of Americans, but policies such as misguided “stimulus” and added taxes and regulation do nothing to ameliorate the situation.
As a country, it is crucial to return to a place where higher education levels guarantee job prospects and upward mobility. They should not just serve as indicators of the next financial bubble to burst.
Marilinda Garcia is in the first class of the RNC’s Rising Star program. She was elected to the New Hampshire house of Representatives in 2006 and is currently serving her fourth term. She is a recipient of the National Foundation for Women Legislators’ “Integrative Healthcare Pioneer Award” and the Disruptivate! “Innovation in Healthcare” Award. She was honored as one of the Republican Security Council’s “45 Most Influential Women under 45.”