May 24, 2011
When will bleak job prospects for graduates become a political issue?
Posted by Erik Gerding

Just in time for the season of commencement speeches, the New York Times has bleak news on employment prospects for graduates.

So far this problem has been seen primarily in economic terms. It has generated debate on whether college or professional  school is a good investment. It has led to questions about whether the country overinvests in higher education or is over-subsidizing student lenders or under-regulating for-profit or non-profit institutions.

One question has been seldom asked: if bleak job prospects persist – if they are not just a temporary product of the economic cycle – how long until they become a political issue? And when would a political issue transform into a political movement? A highly-educated, underemployed younger generation has long been a volatile political catalyst in many countries, as witnessed most recently by the Arab Spring.

The United States, of course, still offers graduates much different economic prospects. It also has a much different political culture. The young are much less likely to vote than the elderly.  At the risk of overgeneralization, they also may be less ideological, treating politics more as a matter of consumer choice of disparate issues (‘I’ll take one of these and a little of that’) while expressing more skepticism of entrenched movements.

Apathy and inertia might be overcome, however, by prolonged stagnation in employment markets. If graduate unemployment or underemployment becomes an issue, it may very well link to other issues that pit the younger generations against baby boomers and older cohorts. For example, will younger generations be willing to bare the increased burden of keeping social security and pension plans afloat? Will the personal – who is not retiring in the office, who is spending the inheritance, who is supporting whom in the family– become political? Will the legacy of previous generations in other areas – such as environmental policy – play into this political dynamic? Issues that have been framed as matters of “intergenerational equity” might become flashpoints in intergenerational conflict. It would be a striking development for the baby boom generation, which defined itself as fighting conventions of their parent’s generation, to find itself challenged by their children and grandchildren.

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