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Deck is stacked against millennials

By Matthew Segal
updated 12:51 PM EDT, Thu May 29, 2014
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Millennials' obstacles to success
Millennials' obstacles to success
Millennials' obstacles to success
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Matthew Segal: Jobless rate for millennials is higher than overall rate
  • Segal: Millennials are saddled with student loan debt for colleges with skyrocketing costs
  • Exploitative unpaid internships only way to work in your field, he says. Why work for free?
  • Segal: Faith in government falling, but millennials cannot stand on the sidelines

Editor's note: Matthew Segal is the co-founder and president of OurTime.org, an advocacy organization for young Americans, and the host of "OurTime with Matthew Segal" on SiriusXM POTUS, a new series produced by and for millennial listeners. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.

(CNN) -- There is a Washington adage that if you don't help write the menu, you might end up on it. And make no mistake: The classes of 2014 that walked across graduation stages recently just provided more young people available to be served for lunch.

Matthew Segal
Matthew Segal

Despite positive news about America's reduced 6.3% unemployment rate in April, it turns out the jobless rate for 18- to 29-year-olds is 9.1%. If you include "discouraged workers," or those who have given up looking for work, unemployment for 18- to 29-year-olds is 15.5%. The unemployment rate for young African-Americans is even worse: 16.6%, and if you add discouraged workers, it's a whopping 23.3%.

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With job opportunities scarce, employers feel little pressure to raise wages. Unpaid internships are pervasive, and the allure of "experience" in their chosen field is enough to entice eager young people to work for free, unless their parents can't afford to subsidize them. Those young people must either accumulate additional debt while working unpaid internships or look toward minimum wage positions, which are becoming more the norm, and less the teenage avocation to score some extra cash.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, 88% of workers making the minimum wage are 20 years old or more, and about 4 in 10 are college graduates or have some level of college education. The system is unfortunately stacked against these low earners, because without savings, the ability to buy goods that can appreciate in wealth -- such as a house -- are negligible. According to the Census Bureau, about 1 in 3 Americans under 35 own homes, dropping by 4.2% from 2007 to 2013.

As James Hauser, a 28-year-old college graduate who works in Washington, told me: "I am debating for my next paycheck whether to make a credit card payment or replace my current pair of shoes. I take public transit for most things, so I walk a lot."

Hauser, like many people his age, feels stunted without assets: "My parents were already in a house with three children when they were my age," he said.

The allure of 'experience' in their chosen field is enough to entice eager young people to work for free. Unless their parents can't afford to subsidize them.
Matthew Segal

Of all the economic trends holding back America's young people, perhaps the most disturbing is the soaring cost of a post-high school diploma. So many young people have been sold the imperative nature of a higher education. "I ask every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training," President Obama said in February 2009. "This can be community college or a four-year school, vocational training or an apprenticeship. But whatever the training may be, every American will need to get more than a high school diploma."

Although the President's goal is a noble one, the cost of a college degree has risen by 1,120% since 1978 -- far outpacing increases in food, health care and housing prices. As a result, we have more than $1.1 trillion in student loan debt, and 7 million Americans are in default on their student loans, meaning they are more than 270 days late on a payment.

"With almost a fourth of borrowers in default, we are creating a generation with nothing left to lose," said Natalia Abrams, executive director of Student Debt Crisis, a national advocacy organization.

Hauser also struggles with debt. "It's hard to think about, especially with the hundreds of dollars of interest that accumulates each month." To make matters worse, there are few protections for student borrowers under U.S. bankruptcy law, which is not true for credit card debt, mortgage debt or even gambling debt.

To file for bankruptcy you must prove "undue hardship," which, in essence, translates to being severely disabled. College students who had taken out loans graduate with an average $25,000 debt because of rising tuition costs. And the government is profiting tens of billions of dollars from federal student loan interest rates, which are projected to climb even more (up to 10.5% for graduate students) over the next five years.

Not surprisingly, faith in government is vanishing. According to a recent Harvard Institute of Politics survey, only 1 in 5 young people trust the federal government, and most pernicious of all, only 23% of young people are positive they will vote in November. "There's an erosion of trust in the individuals and institutions that make government work," said John Della Volpe, the Harvard pollster. "Now we see the lowest level of interest in any election we've measured since 2000."

While it is easy to empathize with young people's frustration in government, abstaining from the political process is arguably the worst move to make. Because politicians assume that young people don't vote, funding for job creation, national service and education is on the chopping block. The class of 2014 must confront this reality: discounting Washington as tone deaf and ineffective seems fair enough, but it will only get worse if we sit on the sidelines.

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