Commentary: Wealth is frozen between idle generations
Happy Idle Labor Day. For most Americans, yesterday was a day to exhale. Not only do they have jobs, but they had reason to celebrate: a paid day off.
But for more than 14 million Americans, Monday was just another day in the soul-crushing reality of unemployment.If you add in the truly despondent -- the people who have simply quit looking for work -- the number is roughly 23 million.
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This is a national tragedy. Hardest hit are the Americans who can least afford to be out of work. The recession has hit minorities hard. The unemployment rate is 16.7% among blacks and 11.3% among Hispanics. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says that the workforce is actually growing, and yet more able-bodied and able-minded workers have nothing to do.
But there's a bigger trend we should be worried about. What jobs exist are held by older Americans. The unemployment rate for teens is 25.4%. For workers aged 20 to 24, it's 14.8%. Compare that with the 55-and-older category, which is at 6.6% and hasn't topped 7.5% since the recession began.
At this rate, the post-Baby Boom generations won't need Social Security. After all, you need a job in order to contribute to payroll taxes and earn a return for retirement.
In other words, today's younger Americans are bearing the brunt of the recession. And beyond that, the economic slump is stealing important work experience from Generations X, Y and the Millennials.
In addition, now comes a troubling poll by Inc./WomanTrend that shows the financial and psychological toll this recession has taken on young Americans.
--More than a quarter, 27%, are delaying going back to school or getting more training.
--28% are delaying saving for retirement.
--More than one out of five, 23%, are delaying starting a family, and 18% are putting off getting married.
--And don't expect younger Americans to bail out their parents' housing mess. Nearly half, 44%, say they're going to delay buying a home.
The upshot of the study, which included a margin of error of 4%, is that the younger end of the work force is stalled -- in numbers that suggest that even those who have jobs aren't optimistic.
This should be raising alarm bells in Washington and on Wall Street, too. It's not only a matter of national policy; it's an economic one. The leading edge of the Baby Boom is retiring this year. That means the primary holders of stocks and bonds and other securities will need to sell those securities for income.
Without a flourishing younger America, those securities aren't going to have willing buyers. It's a death spiral of market economics.
That means we're all going to get poorer: from young people with no money to older Americans with a bunch of securities they can't sell. It's going to get worse over time.
That is, of course, if recent trends hold up. As mentioned, more older Americans -- those 55 or older -- are working relative to previous generations. Fearful of not being able to make ends meet in their golden years, they're not letting go of their jobs.
By holding on, of course, they're not passing the baton to younger Americans. So you can see the cycle. Older people keep working. More younger Americans are unemployed. The wealth is hoarded by the old folks. The wealth diminishes in value without anyone (younger Americans) to whom it can be sold.
That's why we need a broad systemic fix to the system that focuses on getting younger Americans back into the work force or into it for the first time. Tax incentives for hiring younger workers is one obvious way. Government-sponsored work programs to build infrastructure is another.
Government and big business aren't going to solve all of our problems. We need to ask younger and older Americans to accept less, be more entrepreneurial, be more resourceful. Both generations seem to be in a funk. Both are so worried about the future that they're paralyzed.
And this is the real tragedy, one we don't talk about: We're all afraid. The problem is we're not doing anything about it. Young people aren't taking risks. Older people aren't passing on the wealth.
When you're stuck in idle, you're not going to get anywhere.
David Weidner covers Wall Street for MarketWatch.
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