Great Recession produces the 'Shortchanged Generation'

For a mix of reasons -- demographic shorthand, stereotyping, merchandising -- we insist on labeling population cohorts of increments of 20 years or so as generations with specific characteristics.

There is the Lost Generation of World War I, the Greatest Generation of World War II, the Silent Generation of the Depression and that great expression of postwar exuberance, the Baby Boom Generation.

These are arbitrary measures and labels and, below a certain level of generality, meaningless. Not everyone who came of age in 1914-18 was lost; not everyone born from 1901-24 was the greatest; and, heaven knows, not everyone born between 1925 and 1945 was silent, nor even reticent. And the slackers of Generation X proved anything but.

New census data released this week demonstrate the chilling impact the recession has had on the current crop of young Americans, to whom the American dream is increasingly becoming a historical curiosity.

Certainly the tradition of striking out on one's own is fast waning.

The census says that 5.9 million Americans ages 25 to 34 are living with their parents, an increase of 25 percent from before the recession. Men are now twice as likely as young women to live with their parents. As an expression, "empty nesters" is almost quiz-show material.

They are delaying the traditional middle-class aspirations of marriage, buying a home and starting a family. Well, they do start families, but typically out of wedlock, meaning the mother likely faces a life of poverty. One in four families is headed by a single parent, a record high, according to the census.

Homeownership, which would include the traditional "starter home" of young couples, is down for the fourth straight year.

Since the earliest days of the country, when things didn't work out in one region, young and not-so-young settlers packed up and set off in search of better land and opportunities. "Go west, young man," was Horace Greeley's famous 1865 injunction.

But young people today mostly aren't going west, or anywhere else, in search of opportunity. The census says that the share of young adults 18 to 34 making long-distance moves last year fell to a post-World War II low.

If there is a root cause, it is joblessness. Only 55.3 percent of young adults 16 to 29 were employed last year, according to the census, down from 67.3 percent in 2000 and again a post-World War II low.

It gets worse. More and more Americans 65 and older are electing to stay in their jobs. And when the economy turns around, bright, young job-seekers with fresher and better skills will come flocking out of the colleges, to take the jobs that in normal times their older brothers and sisters would be holding.

Until a better name for this hard-luck cohort comes along, the Shortchanged Generation will do.


Scripps Howard News Service