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Pay the Young to Build the Future

Young Americans are a generation betrayed.  Official unemployment is more than 25% for those aged 16-19.  That means the real figure is much worse, especially in minority communities and depressed parts of the country.  But jobs are scarce for everyone.  College students are graduating with record levels of student debt before entering the worst job market for graduates in recent memory.

We’re handing them a nation of crumbling infrastructure, lost ambitions, diminished prospects - and a seemingly endless parade of baby-boomer pop culture references, too.  They deserve better than this legacy of dust and ashes.  Since we’ve made such a mess of things, why not hire them to build the nation - and the future - that they deserve?

We can do it.  Better yet, we can help them do it.  A WPA-like program for younger Americans would give them a brighter future by hiring them to rebuild our infrastructure, develop imaginative new business ideas, create alternative energy sources, and become tomorrow’s artists and writers. We can give them control over their own destiny, too.

But first, a look at the mess we’ve created for them.

Dystopia USA

We’ve trashed the place

We were supposed to hold this nation in trust to the generations that follow us.  It’s only good manners to leave something in the same condition it was in when you borrowed it.  We were given a nation of schools, highways, bridges, tunnels, and railroads that was well-maintained and growing with every passing year. 

Well, frankly, we’ve let the place go to hell.  As Dave Johnson explains, the nation’s infrastructure is collapsing.  It will take more than $1.7 over the next nine years just to fix our surface transportation.  Throw in everything else that’s falling apart, and we’re facing a nation of ruins.

Put it this way:  If older generations had been required to leave a security deposit on this country, they wouldn’t get their money back. 

Indentured Servitude

We’ve sold younger generations a bill of goods.  We told them that if you work hard and get an education there will be jobs waiting for you when you graduate.  But the job market for college graduates has suffered just as much as the overall market, and it’s not getting better.  In the meantime, the cost of tuition has soared


It’s no wonder that the total amount owed on student loans now exceeds credit card debt in this country.  Student loans have led to another bank-fed bubble, this time in tuition costs, that has enriched Wall Street and forced young people into starting their work lives with record levels of debt ... and no work. 

Worse, we’ve left them with no way to earn money just when the time has come to pay the piper ... the Pied Piper of Hamelin, that is.  The original Pied Piper led the village children over a cliff with his flute.  This one has led the youth of America over a cliff of debt with a flute song of prosperity and jobs. 

Unlike his fictional counterpart, this Pied Piper is real.  He’s Wall Street, he’s the government - and he’s us.

Teenaged (and twentysomething) Wasteland

The unemployment situation seems unrelentingly grim for young Americans. The jobless rate rose in 28 of 50 states last month. They’re entering their working years with a 25% unemployment rate, and the figues are much worse for minority communities.  What’s more, studies show that a young person’s lifetime earnings will be affected by what she or he earns in the first few years of working life. 

There was a time when young people could find work.  And they didn’t just have jobs - they had possibilities.  Homes, cars, and fuel were affordable.  They have choices, too—about where to live, what kinds of careers to pursue, and what kind of future they wanted for themselves.

When it came to artistic endeavors - literature, music, theater, film, and visual arts - careers were always difficult, open only to the most talented, the hardest working, and the luckiest.  But at least previous generations had opportunities.  Today the arts have been subjected to decades of withering contempt, along with lost revenue as traditional media outlets failed to adapt to the Internet and other new technologies.

It is, in the words of an old punk band called the Adverts, “no time to be 21.”

A Build-It-Yourself Future

These are daunting problems, but they have solutions.  Our six-point plan is ambitious, but we do “ambitious” in this country.  We did it with the Works Progress Administration in the 1930’s and we can do it again.  Here’s how.

#1: Rebuild Our Infrastructure

Let’s hire young people to work side-by-side with older and more experienced workers.  Together, the generations can rebuild our roads, bridges, highways, and schools.  As they do, younger people will learn new skills from their older colleagues.  Older workers who have survived the bruising experience of long-term unemployment will feel the pride and satisfaction that comes from passing on your skills to others. 

And the money they both spend will stimulate a struggling economy and get in back on a growth path.  That paves the way for a future where those younger workers’ new skills will continue to be in demand.

#2: Reinvigorate Our ‘Brain Resources’

Too often bright young people ignore or abandon certain professions because there is no clear career path, or because academic life seems too insecure in a nation that’s cutting academic jobs and pay - even, paradoxically, as tuition costs soar.

The academic life is vital to a health country.  It’s a way to germinate ideas that are clear paths to new economic growth—ideas in computer programming, telecommunications, mathematics, materials science, and dozens of other fields. 

But it’s also a place to explore ideas that don’t have obvious commercial benefit.  Some of them will, eventually, in unexpected ways.  (Some sociological theories about social networking come to mind.)  But others never will.  They’re simply ways to make us brighter, more creative, and more well-rounded as a people.  We’ll need those qualities as we face an increasingly uncertain future.

#3: Create the Businesses (and Industries) of Tomorrow

Entrepreneurs are familiar with the concept of “incubators” - places where young people can go to develop new ideas and turn them into thriving businesses.  Venture capitalists have subsidized very successful ones, especially in information technology.

Our country should be equally ready to “incubate” new industries - and to help young people become the industry leaders of tomorrow.  Our “youth WPA” should create spaces where smart young people can pursue business ideas in all fields. 

They should be encouraged to apply for these opportunities by submitting proposals that are judged on the following criteria:  Job-creating potential (in the US), imagination, innovation, and contribution to the overall economy.

#4:Re-Energize America

Stalix, a technology group, has rounded up some studies on jobs and green energy.  For solar energy, according to one study, 20 manufacturing job-years and 13 installation job-years are created for each megawatt’s worth of panels installed.

As Stalix observes,“the majority of jobs created are white-collar or highly-skilled craft labor ,,, a large number of indirect jobs are created in supporting industries ...  Statistics show that for every job created by the PV industry, between 1.8 and 2.8 jobs are created in other segments of the economy.”

Stalix also cites a Department of Energy reports which shows that green energy jobs are “labor-intensive, so they generally create more jobs per dollar invested than conventional (energy) ... and they use primarily indigenous resources, so most of the energy dollars can be kept at home.”

Who better to perform these jobs than trained young people?  They’re the ones who will be around to maintain and repair these new, green energy sources in the decades to come. 

#5: Create the Arts of Tomorrow

Imagine a government body with a name like “The Department of the Treasury Section of Painting and Sculpture” or “The Treasury Department Fine Arts Section.”  They both existed - during the years when the Federal government responded broadly and effectively to the Great Depression.

President Roosevelt’s Administration eventually developed a program called “Federal One” that included five divisions:  Art, Music, Theater, Writing, and Records.  Each employed thousands of people who were able to keep the arts alive and create new and innovative forms of expression.  Many of the people who contributed to the country’s billion-dollar entertainment and publishing industries worked for these programs. 

This was also the period when American culture became a dominant world force, with unexpected - and incalculable - value for US global strategic interests. 

Why not create a “Federal One” for young Americans?  Statistically, their unemployment problem today is a grave as the nation’s was during the Great Depression.  And we would be contributing to the next century of American culture.

#6: Give Them a Say in Their Own Future

If we make this initiative a two-year project, the first year can include a series of elections of “youth representatives” from all segments of society that will meet and decide the second year’s funding and programs.  It would be relatively easy to organize and fund those elections using Internet technology and other modern tools.

And they’re bound to make better decisions than their parents did.

Read the rest at Big Ideas to Get America Working series.

Richard "RJ" Eskow, serves on the IEET Board of Directors and as a Senior Fellow with the Campaign for America's Future. RJ is CEO of Health Knowledge Systems (HKS) in Los Angeles.


Not bad, but you’re still slightly biased by yesterday’s paradigm.

We must obsolete the government via social media.

We must transition to an open sourced, abundant economy.

We must achieve egalitarianism.

The old paradigms have run their course, they’ve run out of steam.

Chaos is coming. We will either adapt to it, become flexible enough to usher in something entirely new, or we will collapse, like the USSR, and hope that future generations will emerge better off than we are.

There is no longer any propping up the old system.

It is broken.

Great Article!  As someone with two kids, I am in a bit of a panic about this nation.  Should I spend all my savings (my retirement) educating them - ?  in what field? But what if there’s no jobs, anyway?  Used to be a college education meant something, now… not at all….  Or should I just buy my kids a cheap house somewhere so they’ll have a place to live? Or should I just move us all to Singapore or some other place that isn’t suffering as much economically.  Thanks for addressing this -

Get out while you can. I suggest Copenhagen 😉

These decadent statistics not only apply to the US, in fact the same cultural trait has been steadily emerging in the UK since the mid 70’s, and no doubt across Europe also. Add to this, the adoption of “Reganomics” by a Conservative UK government, (Margaret Thatcher 1979 - 1990), and subsequent lack of real alternatives by “New Labour”, (Socialist - libertarian Tony Blair 1997 - 2007, and Gordon Brown 2007 - 2010), and what you in fact highlight trending in the US is “mirrored” on this side of the Atlantic also, (no surprises nor coincidences there!) This is a global problem!

“.. and she, (Thatcher) became the face of the ideological movement opposing the welfare state Keynesian economics they believed was weakening Britain. The institute’s pamphlets proposed less government, lower taxes, and more freedom for business and consumers.”

All of the above UK leaders did nothing to stimulate careers in engineering sciences nor innovation, (despite their “lip service”), leading to the demise in industry and apprenticeships, and to many young students discarding engineering science, maths and physical sciences altogether, in favour of careers in computer sciences, business media and studies, healthcare and social sciences.

This is not to negate the importance of either healthcare or the social sciences, which are a key area worthy of consideration. These skill sets may be essential to the progress of any sociocultural evolution incorporating the nurture of creativity in arts and social welfare and the other areas described above, and especially where the possibility of any post-scarcity singularity is concerned?


The likes, (and genius), of players such as Alan Greenspan appears to have got us into this cultural decadent spiral and accommodation of greed and avarice, and financial implosion, yet it would also appear that it is the likes of this level of genius that we need to get us out of this socio-economic mess? I’m sure the brains are out there somewhere, it’s just a case of nurturing and encouraging the right talent and adopting the right view towards change?

Yet firstly there is one “key” issue which ultimately needs to be addressed and rectified - That is, that banks should be answerable to their nation state governments, (or to unified treaties), and not the other way around? Banks appear to have the status of autonomy afforded to independent states, and the G20 merely permits them to fail, bail them out, and all without any real contractual agreement for responsibility and recompense.

Anyone seen Michael Moore’s - “Capitalism - a love story”?

According to the above, all the young talent and brains are being sucked towards careers in financial sectors, and away from hands on careers in engineering, and physical sciences and civil engineering? Is this true? If so, it needs to be addressed, and by whom? Your governments, that’s who!

So where does the buck stop?

No doubt the tea party has some involvement in all of this somewhere, (but I will leave others to debate both cause and blame in retrospection - I’m only interested in solutions).

We have a unique opportunity to stimulate growth in civil engineering and towards global initiatives for developing renewable energies to subdue climate change, and the best of these being innovation and investments in the collection of solar energy? We have a unique opportunity, (as is ever present), to aim to resolve both problems with one determined national or global effort?

Or they could just go work abroad. Any other country in history has done so.

I think you have very valid points about the USA, but watchting it all from the outside, it looks to me that the politicians in the USA are not willing to actually do something.
The world and the role of the USA in it is changing, and it seems to me that quite a few American folks don’t know or don’t want to know.

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