Steve Rosenstone

David Joles, Dml - Star Tribune

Lori Sturdevant: A generation of Americans came of age

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT
  • Star Tribune
  • September 10, 2011 - 2:13 PM

The 10-year-old who sobbed in fear at bedtime on Sept. 11, 2001, when she heard military planes circling over south Minneapolis is now a 20-year-old spending a college semester abroad.

And I'm the one who has trouble falling asleep.

That's what I get for choosing as bedtime reading the new Don Peck book, "Pinched: How the Great Recession Has Narrowed Our Futures and What We Can Do About It."

Peck, a deputy managing editor at The Atlantic magazine, doesn't mince words about the prospects for the young people whom he calls Generation R (for recession) and whom we baby boomers know as our kids.

"A whole generation of young adults is likely to see its life chances permanently diminished by this recession," Peck writes.

He tells of research from the last big dip, 1980-82, that found that young people unlucky enough to have started their careers then had not closed the gap with their more fortunate near-peers two decades later.

So much for my personal old-age survival strategy -- mooching from my kids.

Peck is an economics journalist, so he focuses on the Great Recession and its dollars-and-cents impact on young Americans. I'm a mom, so my job is to seize any good excuse to worry and expand on it.

Last week's juxtaposition of 9/11 attack remembrance and economic policy remonstrance served that end nicely. The New York Times' (and St. Louis Park's) Thomas Friedman added worry fodder when he wrote that the events of 2001 and 2008-9 are "intertwined" in "a lost decade" for America.

It was a week of heightened awareness of the trouble the nation has endured in the last decade, of the unresolved quarrels about how to respond and of the sense of vulnerability that is its residue.

Vulnerable -- that was the word used by Steve Rosenstone, the new chancellor of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, to describe the change he has seen in young people in the last 10 years.

"This is the first generation to grow up with a sense that America is vulnerable," said Rosenstone, a former liberal arts dean at the University of Minnesota and himself a father of three members of Generation R.

Sept. 11 was something unlike the events that previous generations experienced, he noted.

"In the Cold War, you'd put supplies in the basement, but it never touched home. In World War II, the vulnerability was in losing sons and daughters in far-away places, but not in our own back yard," he said. "The threat today is not an abstraction."

That goes more than double for the economic threat to the young. It hits home for parents, too, since unemployment means extended dependence on parents for lots of young adults.

A survey this spring of 2011 college grads made my jaw drop. Eighty-five percent of them planned to live with their parents after graduation. The unemployment rate among the under-25 age cohort at one point in recent years exceeded 50 percent.

In "Pinched," Peck describes what all that vulnerability is doing to young Americans' mind-set.

"Cynicism about government's efficacy is growing," he reports. "Economic troubles are sanding away the generation's openness and confidence as well."

In the near term, that means that the liberal young-voter wave that put Barack Obama into the White House in 2008 might not be there for him in 2012.

In the longer term, it could spell difficulty for a nation that needs to be able to mobilize its citizens in common purpose.

As President Obama said in his Thursday speech to Congress, American success has always rested on a dual foundation of individual initiative and joint effort, often through government. Keeping both sides of that foundation strong is crucial.

The president missed a chance to offer a special word of encouragement or tailored federal assistance to the millions of talented but unemployed or underemployed young Americans. Peck likely would chide him for the omission. "The urgency of recovery is highest for the young," he wrote.

Gov. Mark Dayton can do better when he sends his job-growth ideas to the 2012 Legislature. The governor might start by helping Minnesotans see the need to beef up what is still the young's best economic lifeline -- affordable, accessible higher education.

"The story we need to tell is that higher education is not the problem. It's the solution," Rosenstone said last week. People who possess bully pulpits should help tell that story, and help keep it true.

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Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist.

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