The U.S. Labor Department’s monthly hiring and unemployment data for August 2018 showed 201,000 jobs added to the U.S economy. Not a huge surprise. Despite the ceaseless turmoil in our country, the United States is on a 95-month job creation streak.
While in many respects this is great news, the 95-month streak paints a false picture of America as a proud land glowing under a bright economic and social sunrise. The report shows unemployment rates held still at 3.9 percent, and participation in the workforce dropped from 62.9 percent in July to 62.7 percent. The report also reflects a decline in workers age 25 to 54, otherwise known as “prime-age workers.”
Yes, new jobs have been added, but unemployment rates remain stagnant and workforce participation is dropping. For a more honest view of our economic and cultural prospects, we need to look beyond money. One factor that will greatly inform our future (aside from the global climate crisis and the erosion of our democracy) is how young Americans transition into adulthood.
Lurking below the surface of positive job-growth numbers are 4.6 million Americans referred to as disconnected youth — people between the ages of 16 and 24 who neither work nor attend school. Roughly 1 in 9 young adults. Measure of America, a project of the Social Science Research Council, reports: “Rural areas have the highest rate of youth disconnection, 19.3 percent, followed by those living in towns (14.9 percent) and urban centers (12.9 percent). Suburban youth are the least likely to be disconnected, with a rate of 11.3 percent. Disconnection rates in rural counties vary immensely, from essentially 0 percent to 76.6 percent. There is a chasm of nearly 20 percentage points in disconnection rates separating racial and ethnic groups. Asian youth have the lowest rate of disconnection (6.6 percent), followed by white (9.2 percent), Latino (13.7 percent), black (17.2 percent), and lastly, Native American (25.8 percent) youth.”
This should keep us awake at night. As Baby Boomers and Generation X ease into retirement, these 4.6 million disconnected people will stagger out from basements into unfamiliar light — lacking the skills and confidence to function in our democracy. Measure of America writes of disconnected youth: “These vulnerable young people are cut off from the people, institutions, and experiences that would otherwise help them develop the knowledge, skills, maturity, and sense of purpose required to live rewarding lives as adults. And the negative effects of youth disconnection ricochet across the economy, the social sector, the criminal justice system, and the political landscape, affecting us all.”
It would be cowardly to blame disconnected youth for their predicament. Their situation is not about laziness, it’s about oppression. Our country’s oppressive power structure (led by the top 1 percent) has robbed these young minds of precious opportunities to discover their voice, agency and worth. Overwhelmingly from low-income and historically excluded populations, disconnected youths are causalities of an exclusive education system and a growing wage gap that has yanked them into despair.
I am deeply concerned. We are missing 4.6 million diverse ideas and perspectives. What will these people be like in 15 years? How will they contribute? How will they vote? How will we millennials grasp the reins of the country when 4.6 million members of our cohort are lost?
When we go to the polls next month, let us keep these young people in mind. We need to elect officials who acknowledge social and economic injustice and its implications on our future. We need to elect officials who represent the voiceless, who are willing to look beyond the veil of job-growth numbers.
Josh Wennergren, Salt Lake City, is a graduate from the University of Utah’s Environmental Humanities graduate program.