‘Young Workers: A Lost Decade’

(The following post is part of our Taking Back Labor Day blog series. Many people view Labor Day as just another day off from work, the end of summer, or a fine day for a barbecue. We think that it’s a holiday with a rich history, and an excellent occasion to examine what workers, and workers rights activism, means to this country. Our Taking Back Labor Day posts in September will do that, from a variety of perspectives, and we hope you’ll tune in and join the discussion!)


Take a look around this Labor Day. Chances are, you’ll see a lot of young workers on the job, because something bad happened in the past 10 years to young workers in this country: Since 1999, more of them now have lower-paying jobs, if they can get a job at all; health care is a rare luxury and retirement security is something for their parents, not them. In fact, many—younger than 35—still live at home with their parents because they can’t afford to be on their own.

These are the findings of a new report, “Young Workers: A Lost Decade.” Conducted in July 2009 by Peter D. Hart Research Associates for the AFL-CIO and our community affiliate Working America, the nationwide survey of 1,156 people follows up on a similar survey the AFL-CIO conducted in 1999. The deterioration of young workers’ economic situation in those 10 years is alarming.

Nate Scherer, 31, is among today’s young workers. Scherer lives in Columbus, Ohio, where he shares a home with his wife, his parents, brother and his partner.  He spoke at a media conference at the AFL-CIO today to discuss the report.

After getting married, my wife and I decided to move in with my parents to pay off our bills. We could afford to live on our own but we’d never be able to get out of debt. We have school loans to pay off, too. We’d like to have children, but we just can’t manage the expense of it right now…so we’re putting it off till we’re in a better place. My [work] position is on the edge, and I feel like if my company were to cut back, my position would be one of the first to go.

During today’s press briefing, AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka summed up the report’s findings this way:

We’re calling the report “A Lost Decade” because we’re seeing 10 years of opportunity lost as young workers across the board are struggling to keep their heads above water and often not succeeding. They’ve put off adulthood—put off having kids, put off education—and a full 34 percent of workers under 35 live with their parents for financial reasons.

Just last week we learned that about 1.7 million fewer teenagers and young adults were employed in July than a year before, hitting a record low of 51.4 percent.

As AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said:  

Young workers in particular must be given the tools to lead the next generation to prosperity. The national survey we’re releasing today shows just how broken our economy is for our young people…and what’s at stake if we don’t fix it.

Some of the report’s key findings include:

  • 31 percent of young workers report being uninsured, up from 24 percent 10 years ago, and 79 percent of the uninsured say they don’t have coverage because they can’t afford it or their employer does not offer it.
  • Strikingly, one in three young workers are currently living at home with their parents.
  • Only 31 percent say they make enough money to cover their bills and put some money aside—22 percentage points fewer than in 1999—while 24 percent cannot even pay their monthly bills. 
  • A third cannot pay their bills and seven in 10 do not have enough saved to cover two months of living expenses.
  • 37 percent have put off education or professional development because they can’t afford it.
  • When asked who is most responsible for the country’s economic woes, close to 50 percent of young workers place the blame on Wall Street and banks or corporate CEOs. And young workers say greed by corporations and CEOs is the factor most to blame for in the current financial downturn.
  • By a 22-point margin, young workers favor expanding public investment over reducing the budget deficit. Young workers rank conservative economic approaches such as reducing taxes, government spending and regulation on business among the five lowest of 16 long-term priorities for Congress and the president.
  • Thirty-five percent say they voted for the first time in 2008, and nearly three-quarters now keep tabs on government and public affairs, even when there’s not an election going on.
  • The majority of young workers and nearly 70 percent of first-time voters are confident that Obama will take the country in the right direction.

Trumka, who is running for AFL-CIO president without announced opposition at our convention later this month, is making union outreach to young people a top priority. He said one of the report’s conclusions is especially striking:

Young people want to be involved but they’re rarely asked. Their priorities are even more progressive than the priorities of the older generation of working people, yet they aren’t engaged by co-workers or friends to get involved in the economic debate.

Currently, 18-to-35-year-olds make up a quarter of union membership. And at the AFL-CIO Convention, we will ask Convention delegates to approve plans for broad recruitment of young workers, as well as plans for training and leadership of young workers who are currently union members. And that’s just the beginning of a broad push towards talking and mobilizing young workers in the coming months and years.

According to the report, more than half of young workers say employees are more successful getting problems resolved as a group rather than as individuals, and employees who have a union are better off than employees in similar jobs who do not.

Read the full report here.

About the Author: Seth D. Michaels is the online campaign coordinator for the AFL-CIO, focusing on the Employee Free Choice campaign. Prior to arriving at the AFL-CIO, he’s worked on online mobilization for Moveon.org, Blue State Digital and the National Jewish Democratic Council. He also spent two years touring the country as a member of the Late Night Players, a sketch comedy troupe.

This article originally appeared in employeefreechoice.org. Re-printed with permission from the author.

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.