Sunday, June 21, 2015

To Be Adrift in America

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Yesterday evening I read a New York Times opinion piece which I found especially compelling. The piece focused on the issue of young people who are adrift in America. It made for a sobering read.

A recently completed study prepared by the Social Science Research Council and quoted in the piece I noted above offered a dismal statistic. There are more than 5.5 million people ages 16 to 24 who are neither working nor in school. The size of this population is noted to be larger than it was before the "Great Recession". I don't find the apparent growth of this population at all surprising. Hope was a major casualty of the recession. As more and more people possessing substantial educational backgrounds have foundered in their efforts to find or maintain gainful employment it stands to reason that many young people who have borne witness to this trend would shrink from the idea of pursuing a higher education. Why bother when the value of a higher education appears to plummeting?

Had the economy been the way it is today when I fit within this particular age demographic I might have made a similar choice. I might have postponed pursuing my undergraduate degree. I feel fortunate I did not. And yet it would appear my undergraduate degree was the most valuable of the three degrees I have obtained. The value of a graduate degree seems to be sinking in America. And it appears it has been going on a while now.

The opinion piece also shares some unsurprising insights regarding what happens when young people of such discouraging circumstances concentrate in one area. Neighborhoods populated by such youth tend to feature high rates of poverty, high rates of unemployment and housing segregation.

I have enough life experience to offer what I believe is an informed perspective on the issue of the future of youth. I believe the issue of disengaged youth is a product of a number of convergent factors. Prominent among these factors is the dreary economic reality that was referenced in the piece. The Great Recession was the worst economic period for the United States since the Great Depression. I quite honestly would not be surprised if our last recession was one day actually recategorized as a depression. The hardship many people have experienced has been ridiculous.

But there are other factors at play that must be acknowledged. What about other institutions that are significant to a child's development? If you are going to seriously research human development during childhood and early adulthood you must look at the prominent institutions that affect a vast majority of our lives. What about our primary education system? What about the quality of our public institutions including the federal government? What about law enforcement? What about religious institutions? Corruption in one or more of these institutions can be profoundly scarring to people. And I think this is especially true for young people. Being mistreated by a teacher, abused by a religious official or subjected to the corrupt conduct of a member of law enforcement can profoundly violate a person's capacity to trust. When multiple institutions fail to fulfill their mandates the damage seems almost certain to compound far beyond the damage that might be done by a single institution. I would wager that human trust is one of our most precious resources.

I finally wish to once more actively engage with the world at large. The scope of what I dream can be my own future life has expanded as I have sought out psychotherapy these last two years. But I remain nonetheless very aware of how frequently and deeply I felt failed by several institutions early in my own life.

If young people are to thrive they must be given the resources to do so. Here in America I believe there is a very real risk that extremely short-sighted policies created in the last ten to twenty years might lay the foundation for the genesis of a lost generation. I believe we can do better.

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