There has been a crowded field of suffering created by the Great Recession, in which $14.5 trillion of American wealth vanished.
Baby Boomers have lost retirement funds, while Generation X–ers have lost out on some peak earning years. The biggest losers, though, have been the Millennials. According to the 2010 census data released last week, many of them have literally lost their future.
The media have taken to describing the 18- to 29-year-olds who will ultimately bear the brunt of the economic downturn as the “Lost Generation.” It’s the haunting turn of phrase that Ernest Hemingway credited to Gertrude Stein, who used it almost a century ago, referring to the men and women who struggled in the aftermath of World War I. “All of you young people who served in the war. You are a lost generation,” Hemingway quotes Stein as saying in his book about the era, A Moveable Feast. Stein had recounted an outburst from a garage owner directed at a young mechanic who had failed to properly repair her car: “You have no respect for anything. You drink yourself to death . . .” Stein, according to Hemingway, was disgusted by the aimless generation of World War I vets.
Perhaps Stein didn’t quite take to all those young veterans invading her artistic stomping ground and abandoning traditional values for the indulgence and spiritual void of the Jazz Age. “The hell with her lost-generation talk and all the dirty, easy labels,” Hemingway wrote, feeling sympathy for the mechanic. What Hemingway and others in his generation had witnessed in the war shook their very notion of civilization, calling into question the social compact they had been raised to believe in. And in Great Britain, the meaning of “lost” was not in the least existential — over 800,000 Britons were wiped out on the battlefields.
This time around, “the Lost Generation” applies to a different kind of trauma. For the most part, America’s youth, with the exception of the men and women who enlisted, have been shielded from the decade of war — it exists as a constant background noise, perhaps, and maybe as one of the explanations for our dire financial situation. (The trillion dollars poured into Iraq and Afghanistan is cited by President Obama as a reason for the recession.) The present circumstances are in fact quite different from those that produced Stein’s “lost generation”: Whereas in the early 20th century a devastating war shook the old order, today the shattered economy has upended the Millennials’ chances for prosperity.
What do the data say? Overall, these figures have far-reaching implications for the education, quality of life, and opportunity available for Millennials. As reported by the Associated Press, at 55.3 percent, the employment rate for young adults is the worst since World War II; it has suffered a decline of twelve percentage points since 2000. The young aren’t able to strike out on their own, either — Census figures show 5.9 million Americans aged 25 to 34 living with their parents in 2011. That’s a total of 14.2 percent of that age group, an increase of two percentage points since the recession began. Northeastern University’s Center for Labor Market Studies analyzed the Census data and found that poverty is most acute among young families, with one in three below the poverty line. The poverty rate for all families headed by an adult under 30 has risen by six percentage points since 2007, to 28 percent in 2011; add a child to the family and the stat becomes a rise of eight percentage points.
That’s what this generation’s version of shell-shocked looks like: staring at the future and seeing a mountain of debt from Social Security, without any reasonable expectation of reaping the benefits. And there are plenty of this Lost Generation who, rather than turning to literature or the arts or even booze, dull the pain by worshipping the cult of celebrity, wondering why their own specialness doesn’t translate into hefty paychecks. For this subgroup, perhaps the New York Times’s description is a little more apt than Lost Generation — “Generation Limbo” — though it hasn’t quite caught on. The definition? “Highly educated 20-somethings, whose careers are stuck in neutral, coping with dead-end jobs and listless prospects” and waiting for the tide to turn. A recent Dartmouth graduate claimed that some of her fellow Ivy Leaguers had gone on welfare and have started training younger graduates on how to apply for government benefits: “We are passing on these traditions on how to work in the adult world as working poor,” the former waitress, now a paralegal, told the Times.
It is not a comforting picture. If Ivy Leaguers have turned to the government dole, what incentive do the less fortunate and less well-connected have to wean themselves off big government? Perhaps this is indeed a generation that is lost in limbo.
— Elise Jordan is a New York–based writer and commentator. She served as a director for communications in the National Security Council in 2008–09 and was a speechwriter for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.