Not Waving But Drowning

"The policies of the Bush administration and Congress have made the future look even grimmer for young people," author Tamara Draut says in an interview with AlterNet. And one of the remarkable things about the way we live now is that it's nearly impossible to guess what she's referring to. There are just too many choices.

Is she talking about environmental degradation? A good guess, but no. What about the Bush administration's subordination of science to short term political goals? Definitely a problem, but not the one Draut has in mind. Our disastrous foreign policy? Sure, it'll be wrecking havoc and costing lives for many years to come, but that's a topic for another day. The subversion of civil liberties? A dark stain on American history, of course, but not the subject of the interview. Torture? Out of control spending? Relentless cronyism and other forms of corruption? The assault on the Separation of Powers through Presidential Signing Statements? No, no, no, all good guesses, and just the tip of the malignant iceberg, but what Tamara Draut is talking about is the financial situation facing Gens X and Y: "Young adults today, working to get into the middle class -- they're being hit by a one-two punch: The economy no longer generates widespread opportunity, and our public policies haven't picked up any of the slack."

In her new book Strapped: Why America's 20- and 30-Somethings Can't Get Ahead, Draut examines why 60% of 18 to 34 year olds are having trouble keeping their heads above water. It wasn't always this way, Draut explains in her interview:

A generation ago, a young person entered the labor market on an escalator. Young workers could count on a swift and stead progression in their earnings. Today, young workers enter the labor market on one of those automated airport walkways. Productivity may be rising, but young workers' paychecks are staying flat.

Back in 1972, the typical 25- to 34-year-old male high school graduate earned just over $42,000 in inflation-adjusted dollars. Three decades later, male high school graduates are earning just over $29,000. But the earnings for college grads have remained fairly steady over the last three decades.

Young women's earnings have also declined, but not as steeply. Young female workers with college degrees have experienced growth in their incomes compared to three decades ago as career opportunities have grown, though women in this age group earn less than their male counterparts at every level of education.

The earnings picture is grim. But add to that the reality that while paychecks have been stuck in first gear, the price of housing has soared in the last ten years. This is especially true for young professionals because the hottest job markets are still clustered around our nation's largest and most expensive cities. Between 1995 and 2002, median rents in nearly all the largest metropolitan areas rose by more than 50 percent.

And it turns out that the reasons for the change have nothing to do with kids these days being a bunch of lazy bums who just want to lie around and illegally download music, and rather little to do with the favorite imaginary friend of economists, the Invisible Hand of the Market. To find out why Draut says, "the breakdown in opportunity and economic security didn't 'just happen,' and it can be changed", read the interview.

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