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A Lost Generation in the Making?

Ron Brownstein has a fascinating column in National Journal, in which writes, “It’s hard to say this spring whether it’s more difficult for the class of 2011 to enter the labor force or for the class of 1967 to leave it.” The Great Recession and its aftermath have created a very high (17 percent) youth unemployment rate. But the meltdown “vaporized” both housing values and retirement plans, forcing aging baby boomers to work longer than they intended. “For every member of the millennial generation frustrated that she can’t start a career, there may be a baby boomer frustrated that he can’t end one,” according to Brownstein. “Cumulatively, these forces are inverting patterns that have characterized the economy since Social Security and the spread of corporate pensions transformed retirement.”

Brownstein goes on to report that what economists call the “idleness rate” is rising. “The share of Americans younger than 24 neither at work nor in school has steadily increased since 2007,” he writes. “That disconnection creates the risk of what Harvard University labor economist Lawrence Katz calls ‘a lost generation.’”

This is but one manifestation of how our prolonged economic crisis is having far-reaching social effects. We are in the process of changing habits and patterns that will alter our country in fairly profound ways. And what’s most worrisome of all is that there’s no evidence that our economy is turning around. As Daniel Henninger of the Wall Street Journal puts it, in terms of economic policy, the Obama armory is empty. “From within the exclusively demand-side context of the president’s economic policy,” he writes, “there are no more bullets in the carbines. This president is now virtually defenseless against the inexorable forces of the U.S. economy.”

An interesting and important question to wrestle with is how much of our current economic struggles are structural and the result of events largely beyond a president’s ability to change, at least in the short term, versus misguided and unwise policies emanating from the president and the Federal Reserve Board. The answer, I suspect, is a combination of both; what’s more difficult to discern is how much responsibility to apportion to each. But what we can say with confidence, I think, is that what the president is doing isn’t working well at all. Our economy is getting weaker rather than stronger. The trajectory is down rather than up. And the ramifications of all this may well be with us long after Mr. Obama has left the presidency.



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