Young People Remain An Untapped Opportunity for This Nation

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A significant chunk of the nation’s young population is struggling.

Nearly one in seven Americans between the ages of 16 and 24 aren’t enrolled in school or working a job. As a result, they’re missing out on opportunities to pursue the American Dream, according to a new report from The Opportunity Nation coalition.


It’s not that they’re lazy or unambitious. Quite the opposite. But they’ve come of age in an economy more accustomed to shedding jobs than adding them. They’re also reaching college-age as the cost of higher education soars out of reach for an increasing number of families.

In other words, they can’t catch a break. And that could have long-term consequences.


Young people who aren’t earning a salary to support their day-to-day living expenses are less likely to save money for retirement. They’re not making work connections or developing new skills on the job that could lead to new career opportunities and salary increases later in life. They’re also less likely to be able to afford what have traditionally been markers of a middle-class lifestyle, things like purchasing a car and a house.

“If you’re disconnected from educational training and job opportunities in that 16 to 24 time period, your life-time earnings are depressed, you don’t get connected to the career ladder…you don’t build connections and social capital,” said Russell Krumnow, managing director of Opportunity Nation.

According to an August 2013 Pew Research Center survey, more than half of young people 18-24 lived with their parents. That’s higher than at any time in the last forty years. The 2007 recession kicked off a steady increase and its official end in 2009 didn’t help matters.

The trend also has social implications that deeply impact the economy. In 1968, according to Pew, 56 percent of young people 18 to 31 were married and living with a spouse. That number fell in 2012 to just 23 percent. That means young people living at home are far less likely to get married than their peers, and more likely to delay starting a family and exercising spending power.


Clearly, this isn’t to say that a young person has to buy a house or be married to be successful. But there are millions of people who would like to be in school or who would like to be working right now that are sitting at home (often their parents’ home).

Krumnow said his organization believes this situation can present an opportunity. It’s just a matter of providing the right resources.


That’s why Opportunity Nation advocates reforming career and technical training. Four-year degrees are great and people who want them should pursue them, Krumnow said, but there’s also value in training people in the growing fields of information technology and healthcare.

The nation also needs to consider more flexible high school plans, he said. Children should be able to get credit for working a job while they study, for instance.


The gist is really that the traditional linear path to success no longer cuts it.

“We can do better,” Krumnow said, “This is an untapped resource for our country.”


Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.

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