Whatever the reason, the fact that so many young adults weren’t firmly rooted in the workforce even before the crash is deeply worrying. It means that a very large number of young adults entered the recession already vulnerable to all the ills that joblessness produces over time. It means that for a sizeable proportion of 20- and 30-somethings, the next few years will likely be toxic.
No young people were present at a seminar for the unemployed held on November 4 in Reading, Pennsylvania, a blue-collar city about 60 miles west of Philadelphia. The meeting was organized by a regional nonprofit, Joseph’s People, and held in the basement of the St. Catharine’s parish center. All 30 or so attendees, sitting around a U-shaped table, looked to be 40 or older. But one middle-aged man, one of the first to introduce himself to the group, said he and his wife were there on behalf of their son, Errol. “He’s so disgusted that he didn’t want to come,” the man said. “He doesn’t know what to do, and we don’t either.”
I talked to Errol a few days later. He is 28 and has a gentle, straightforward manner. He graduated from high school in 1999 and has lived with his parents since then. He worked in a machine shop for a couple of years after school, and has also held jobs at a battery factory, a sandpaper manufacturer, and a restaurant, where he was a cook. The restaurant closed in June 2008, and apart from a few days of work through temp agencies, he hasn’t had a job since.
He calls in to a few temp agencies each week to let them know he’s interested in working, and checks the newspaper for job listings every Sunday. Sometimes he goes into CareerLink, the local unemployment office, to see if it has any new listings. He does work around the house, or in the small machine shop he’s set up in the garage, just to fill his days, and to try to keep his skills up.
“I was thinking about moving,” he said. “I’m just really not sure where. Other places where I traveled, I didn’t really see much of a difference with what there was here.” He’s still got a few thousand dollars in the bank, which he saved when he was working as a machinist, and is mostly living off that; he’s been trading penny stocks to try to replenish those savings.
I asked him what he foresaw for his working life. “As far as my job position,” he said, “I really don’t know what I want to do yet. I’m not sure.” When he was little, he wanted to be a mechanic, and he did enjoy the machine trade. But now there was hardly any work to be had, and what there was paid about the same as Walmart. “I don’t think there’s any way that you can have a job that you can think you can retire off of,” he said. “I think everyone’s going to have to transfer to another job.” He said the only future he could really imagine for himself now was just moving from job to job, with no career to speak of. “That’s what I think,” he said. “I don’t want to.”
Men and Family in a Jobless Age
In her classic sociology of the Depression, The Unemployed Man and His Family, Mirra Komarovsky vividly describes how joblessness strained—and in many cases fundamentally altered—family relationships in the 1930s. During 1935 and 1936, Komarovsky and her research team interviewed the members of 59 white middle-class families in which the husband and father had been out of work for at least a year. Her research revealed deep psychological wounds. “It is awful to be old and discarded at 40,” said one father. “A man is not a man without work.” Another said plainly, “During the depression I lost something. Maybe you call it self-respect, but in losing it I also lost the respect of my children, and I am afraid I am losing my wife.” Noted one woman of her husband, “I still love him, but he doesn’t seem as ‘big’ a man.”