The economy appears to be recovering, but unemployment remains high and it might be several years more before many people see the recession’s end reflected in their own lives, say many economists.
Emerging adults — those in their late teens to mid-20s — face an especially difficult time adjusting to the economic downturn’s effects on the work force, says Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, PhD, a developmental psychologist at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., who specializes in understanding emerging adulthood. He has written several books on the topic, including the textbook “Adolescence and Emerging Adulthood: A Cultural Approach” (2010, Prentice Hall) and “Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from Late Teens through the Twenties” (Oxford University Press, 2004), in addition to numerous journal articles.
Many emerging adults are having a particularly hard time finding meaningful work and keeping those jobs because they lack the experience and social connections of older workers, he says. That can lead them to return home to live with their parents — or never leave in the first place — and become frustrated with the job search. The Monitor spoke with Arnett about the challenges emerging adults are facing and found some good news: Research suggests that this generation will be quick to rebound once the economy does.
How hard are emerging adult job-seekers being hit by today’s economy?
The unemployment rate right now is very high compared with what it’s been for the last 20 years. A crucial statistic to understand is that the youth unemployment rate — which accounts for 16- to 24-year-olds — is very consistently twice as high as the overall unemployment rate. So even when times were good 10 or 15 years ago when the economy was doing very well, the unemployment rate was around 5 percent overall, but 10 percent for youth. Now that the general unemployment rate is 10 percent, it’s close to 20 percent for the emerging adults.
That’s really important to understand: It just takes a while for young people to make their way into the labor force; it always does. But it’s especially hard with the down economy.
That’s even more true in a recession because a lot of employers are cutting jobs, and who are they going to cut? They can’t cut the person who’s been there for 10 or 20 years because they know so much and they’re such a part of the operation. You can more easily cut a couple of the young people or just not fill one of their jobs for a while because they’re not as essential to the operation.
How do these challenges affect emerging adults’ attitudes?
There’s a lot of frustration in a down economy with not being able to find what you want, and feeling that you’re having to take a job that you don’t really want to do, that doesn’t fit your abilities or interests.
But I’m more struck by their optimism. Research suggests that even when times are difficult, either overall or for them personally, they are remarkably optimistic about how things will work out in the long run. Almost all of them believe that better days are out there. That’s another reason they have so many job changes: They keep believing they can do better, hoping that the next job will be better than the last one.
Is that a hallmark of today’s emerging adults, or have young people always been this way?
It’s hard to say. We don’t have research going back far enough to say for sure, but I tend to think it’s part of the magic of youth. Young people have a lot of physical energy. In many ways, they’re also at the peak of their cognitive abilities. Almost all of them are still on an upward trajectory in terms of career progress and earnings and so on. So, that makes it possible for them to — even when they’re struggling to find a job or forced to take a crummy job — believe that better days are ahead because for most of them, better days are ahead.
Many people who lived through the Great Depression developed extreme frugality and hoarded food through their lives. Will emerging adults today develop similar habits?
My main answer would be no. American society is so much more affluent now that it’s difficult for us to fathom how little most of our grandparents and great-grandparents had, especially during the Depression. Also, there wasn’t a social safety net like there is now. People could literally starve to death during the Depression. That is something that left an indelible impression on many people who lived through that era, including my own father: the fear, the terror that they would be in a situation where their basic physical needs would not be met. Today’s emerging adults in the United States are really the beneficiaries of living in a country that’s immensely wealthy and resilient economically.
Will the economy have any long-lasting effects on emerging adults’ mental health?
There is some research showing that long-term unemployment is related to depression and anxiety among emerging adults. They are optimistic, but if they go through a year or two or three without finding a job, it is quite discouraging. But I tend to think once they get through their of period of struggle and find a stable place in the workplace — which, by the way, almost everybody does by age 30 — then the depression will lift.
What do emerging adults have going for them that will help them weather today’s economy?
They are very resilient, physically and cognitively and emotionally. Yes, they’re struggling, and they’re struggling more than people in other age groups in some ways because of their higher unemployment rate, but they also have a lot to draw on in terms of their personal resources.
The other crucial thing they have that’s important to remember is that they’re free, for the most part. One of the distinguishing developmental features of emerging adulthood is that it is this self-focused time when you don’t really have anyone else who depends on you. If you’re not married and you don’t have a child, you’re relatively free. You may suffer some hard times, but that’s a much different situation than if you’re the main breadwinner in your family and suddenly you can’t make enough money to pay your mortgage, which is a situation a lot of middle adults have experienced in the last two or three years. That’s a much different situation. It’s still socially acceptable for emerging adults to move home for awhile. If you’re 50 and you need to move home for awhile, that’s less acceptable.
What major milestones of adulthood have been affected by the recession?
Living independently and educational participation. If 20 percent of young people are looking for a job and can’t find one, well, what do they do? They rely on family support. The main option is to move home with their parents or stay there if they’re already there.
And both unemployment and staying at home longer are linked to educational participation. If you can’t find a job, what might you do instead? In my own research and reviewing that of others, I’ve noticed that a lot of young people will think, “Maybe I’ll take a few classes or go back to school. Maybe I’ll get some kind of training in a trade or a practical profession,” in order to have something to do as well as to prepare themselves better for the competition they’re facing for getting a job.
Has living through the recession taught young people anything about money management?
For emerging adults, as well as their middle-aged parents, research shows that the recession has been a wake-up call in terms of how we spend money and what we spend it on. Overall, there’s been a sharp increase in savings since the recession began a couple years ago, and a reduction in debt. That shows that people are realizing that you can’t just spend more money than you have indefinitely, because eventually it will catch up with you.