Youth unemployment is currently at its highest level since the Great Depression, topping even the cyclical downturn of the early 1980s. Back then, fueled by an industrial crisis, close to 20 percent of all young people under 25 were jobless.
There were huge consequences. The jobs crisis, combined with lack of education and influx of drugs, particularly crack, precipitated what Marx called "social death" where millions live on the margins without the experience of ever working.
Today in the post-industrial towns of the U.S., three generations have come of age without the experience of gainful employment. For Blacks and Latinos particularly, but for white working class youth also, this has been a slow walk through hell until death.
In the early 1980s, led by the National Coalition for Economic Justice, important efforts were undertaken to bring attention to the jobs crisis. A national youth lobby for jobs was held in 1982 that brought 2,000 black, white and brown young people to D.C. to push Congress to pass jobs measures. While gaining some labor support, lauds from progressive legislators and nods here and there from the press, this movement failed to take firm hold. A few years later the cyclical economic upturn made it seem less pressing.
With the coming of the Great Recession these same issues have returned with a vengeance. From almost every standpoint, youth unemployment has grown far worse than before and shows no signs of abating. According to the Economic Policy Institute, "Since the start of the recession in December 2007, young adults have attained the highest unemployment rate on record (since 1948). The unemployment rate for 16-24-year-old workers peaked in September 2009 at 19.2% - passing the peak rate of 19.0% from November 1982 - and started 2010 at 18.9%."
According to their study, young workers account for 70 percent of all job losses.
Needless to say, there is a racial dynamic to the crisis. "Black 16-24 year-old workers had the highest rate, starting 2010 at 32.5%, followed by Hispanics (24.2%), and then whites (15.2%). However, it is 16-24 year-old Hispanics workers who saw the largest increase in unemployment (13.2 percentage points), compared to their black (10.7 percentage points) or white (8.2 percentage points) counterparts."
Thankfully the trade union movement is uniquely aware of these problems and is undertaking serious efforts to address them, a key factor not present in the 1980s. The AFL-CIO in June is holding a youth jobs conference. The Steelworkers president, Leo Gerard, in February called for a youth-led, labor-supported civil rights revolution around the fight for jobs.
Significantly, stress is being placed on the need for public works jobs, on the WPA model which celebrated its 75th anniversary last week. In this regard, citing the problems of workers over 20, a commentator recently wrote the following on the Firedoglake blog: "Unskilled workers between the ages of 20-24 are also have trouble finding work; their unemployment rate has climbed to nearly 15%. President Franklin D. Roosevelt dealt with this problem through the WPA's National Youth Administration work-study program, in which 2.7 million young people were able to either stay in school while working, or receive job training."
Great pressure will have to be placed on Congress to move in this direction. The Local Jobs for America Act, which has 100 sponsors, needs 100 more to have a chance of passing. It will provide one million new jobs.
Conservatives in both parties are loath to use leftover money from TARP to fund such programs, citing deficit.
Even President Obama's $250 Social Security payment failed to gain congressional support last month over alleged fears of adding to the deficit.
Only a massive militant movement demanding federal action will push Congress in the right direction. It's time to put on our marching shoes.
Photo: A young person walks in an alley in Detroit, where 16- to 19-year-olds face an official unemployment rate of 57.4 percent. (AP/Carlos Osorio)