Young Workers, Positive About Unions, Face Economic Squeeze

Two new reports show today's young workers are being squeezed by high costs of living and low or stagnant wages and they want the government to do more to solve this nation's economic mess.

The Economic State of Young America by Demos presents a statistical study of the economic condition of young workers, and The Progressive Generation: How Young Adults Think About the Economy by the Center for American Progress (CAP) analyzes public polling of young workers. Click here for a copy of the Demos report and here for the CAP report.

The two reports paint a picture of young workers who are faced with a combination of declining incomes, growing debt, high costs of education, homeownership and health care. In fact, say the reports' authors, this generation of young workers could be the first not to surpass the living standards of their parents.

One key finding is that young workers understand the role of unions in building economic and political strength to make changes in public policies and the workplace. In the CAP study, young workers gave unions an average ranking of 60 on a 0-to-100 scale (with 0 indicating a negative view and 100 being a positive view), the second-highest level of support of any age group in the more than 40 years the question has been asked.

The authors of the two reports say the problems of young workers will have an impact on public policy for years to come. Tamara Draut, director of the Economic Opportunity Program at Demos, says:

Young people today are being hit with a one-two economic punch. For this generation of young workers, the economy no longer generates widespread opportunity and security, and our public policies haven't evolved to pick up any of the slack. In fact, many of the problems we see today are a direct result of a disinvestment in the policies meant to ensure that the opportunity ladder is firmly in place.

David Madland, director of CAP's American Worker Project, says:

Young adults today think that the government can be a force for good in the economy, and that increased investments in healthcare, education, and other areas are necessary to ensure strong and sustainable economic growth. The progressive economic views of this large and politically active generation of young adults is likely to have a profound impact in 2008 and into the future.

Here is a snapshot of young workers culled from both reports:

  • No matter what their level of education, incomes have declined for most young workers. The only young workers whose income rose between 1975 and 2005 were women with a college degree. Their incomes rose 10 percent, while incomes in all other education groups fell or remained stagnant.

  • Even though their wages are declining, young workers' debts are rising. The average college graduate has a nearly $20,000 debt; average credit card debt has increased 47 percent between 1989 and 2004 for 25- to 34-year-olds and 11 percent for 18- to 24-year olds.

  • Although more than half of women with a child under age one are in the labor force (up from 31 percent in 1976), public policy supports for young families are still lacking. Only 39 percent of women received paid maternity leave. Child care is expensive. Full-time care for a toddler ranges from $3,794 to $10,920 annually, while full-time care for an infant rages from $4,388 to $14,647 annually. In every region of the country, child care for two children exceeds the median rent and is as high or higher than the median monthly mortgage payment.

  • Not surprisingly, young workers are more likely to support universal health coverage than any age group in the 30 previous years the question has been asked, with 57 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds saying that health insurance should come from a government insurance plan.

  • Another 87 percent think the government should spend more money on health care even if a tax increase is required to pay for it, the highest level of support in the question’s 20-year history.

  • An overwhelming 95 percent think education spending should be increased even if a tax increase is required to pay for it, the highest level ever recorded on this question in the 20 years it has been asked.

  • And 61 percent say the government should provide more services, the most support of any age group in any of the previous 20 years the question has been asked.

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