Why a Growing Movement of Young People Could Ignite a Workers' Revolution
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The labor movement may already belong to youth, but they don’t know it yet. More than two-thirds of young people aged sixteen to thirty-four are in the workforce, but only about one in twelve belong to a union, according to the Labor Project for Working Families, a research initiative of Cornell University and UC Berkeley. At the same time, youth unemployment edged up to a historical high of about 19 percent in mid-2010. Among black and Latino youth, the rate exceeded 30 and 20 percent, respectively. And while working young women had lower official jobless rates, unemployment among black and Latina women in their twenties more than doubled from 2007 to 2009, faring even worse than their male counterparts. Many months into our so-called recovery, countless young people in communities across the country—and many more in the impoverished Global South—are stuck on the sidelines of an economy they should be running.
Declining unionization rates are a symptom and a cause of this declining quality of life. Youth aren’t naturally apathetic; there’s no shortage of awareness or even anger at everyday labor issues like income inequality, lack of health care, or underemployment of highly educated workers. What’s missing is brand recognition. On a material level, it’s easy to see why unions might hold limited appeal for younger workers who have no access to or desire for the kind of lifetime job security that strongly unionized sectors have traditionally enjoyed. On the other hand, a recent study by Jonathan Booth of the London School of Economics and Political Science noted that a big factor in unionization is simply the time when a worker has a chance to join a union. Enrollment generally happens when people first enter the workforce, and after a certain point opportunities for unionization tend to fall off. In the sample, older workers (aged twenty-one to forty-one) were tracked into union jobs at just about a third of the rate of their younger counterparts (aged sixteen to twenty-five), so potential for unionization is actually skewed toward the young end of the age spectrum. The study concludes, “younger workers are not less receptive to unions than older workers,” but initial exposure to unionism, positive or negative, will shape attitudes toward the movement for years to come. From an organizer’s standpoint, the takeaway is that you never get a second chance to make a first impression.
Even if they haven’t been impressed by the labor movement, in an age of twenty-four-hour news and social media, young workers should be more aware than ever of the value of their contribution to the economy and their collective experience everyday in the cubicle, training center, or unemployment office. Their lives, grievances, and anxieties are constantly “shared”—in the metaphysical sense and the digital sense—by legions of peers. So they know that they’re not the only ones dealing with unfair wages, tumbling from one parttime or temp gig to another, watching the value of their hard-earned degree erode as they e-mail job applications in their parents’ basement. Then there is the psychological tax of having to live on credit, deprived of the chief source of wealth in the postwar era, real estate. Meanwhile, their parents’ generation, once buoyed by the promise of intergenerational mobility, is entering retirement unable to chart either their children’s economic destiny or their own as they age out of the workforce.
Some commentators have questioned whether the new normal is a shift in the time frame of life, as young people delay financial planning, marriage, and other major life decisions. Don Peck predicted in a seminal 2010 Atlantic article, “this era of high joblessness will likely change the life course and character of a generation of young adults— and quite possibly those of the children behind them as well. . . . It may already be plunging many inner cities into a kind of despair and dysfunction not seen for decades. Ultimately, it is likely to warp our politics, our culture, and the character of our society for years.” But such apocalyptic forecasts suggest the younger generation is somehow doomed. But in reality, boomers were slapped with the same dire predictions, and they generally survived, even achieved middle-class respectability. There are also indications that kids today are a positive exception to the generational boom-bust cycles. If globalization is potent enough to disrupt traditional pathways to upward mobility, doesn’t it also have the potential to blaze new social systems—horizontal rather than hierarchical, dynamic rather than bureaucratic—that can guide us toward different kinds of wealth and fulfillment?