The New Lost Generation

March 1st, 2011 at 2:29 pm David Frum | 31 Comments |

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Someday, today’s 20-somethings will call their elders to account.

They will say:

“We faced the worst economic shock since World War II – and you accepted it as a problem without a solution.

“You lamented burdening us with debt, even as you refused to consider economic policies that might enable us ever to pay it.

“You worried over non-existent inflation even as we spent years out of work.

“As we lost our start in life, you protected Medicare for yourselves.

“You condemned us to a half-decade of idleness, then reproached us as video-game-playing slackers.”

Of all the things that have surprised me about the economic crisis that began almost four summers ago, the most surprising thing of all has been the indifference of American political and policy elites to the trauma of the generations below them. The elders tell the young what they should be worried about (the national debt) but refuse to listen when the young try to tell us what they actually are worried about: the waste of their first years, the forfeit of life opportunities.

A recent column puts the matter well:

Since the collapse of the mortgage bubble in 2008 and the advent of the Great Recession, the huge unemployment problem that is now dogging the U.S. economy has fallen disproportionately heavily on the shoulders of younger generations. The unemployment rate among teenagers in the United States, after going all the way down to 13 percent at the end of the dot-com era, rocketed after 2008 and remains persistently above 25 percent.

Actually, new graduates have faced dismal job prospects since 2007. Most recent graduates don’t show up in unemployment statistics because they don’t collect benefits. Some have chosen to go to graduate school in order not to be looking for work in an extremely difficult environment, while others have moved in with their parents and taken up part-time or unskilled work. In addition to 8 million jobs lost since the start of 2008, there have also been millions of jobs not created to accommodate the natural rate of expansion of the labor force. In all, there have now been three graduating classes without meaningful work, the Class of ’11 is hardly going to fare better and economists believe that the labor market will remain depressed for another several years. When employers begin hiring entry-level workers once more, they will opt for new graduates rather than for people who had spent years looking for work.

With new employment numbers due at the end of this week, we at FrumForum decided that the time was opportune to listen to the voices of this new generation at risk. Over the next days, we will be featuring a number of their first-person stories in this space. If their experience is yours, we welcome you to join the conversation at

In part 1 of this exclusive series, Luke Johnson argues that contrary to the theory of lazy, responsibility-free “pre-adulthood” twentysomethings, today’s college graduates have to be more adult-like at an earlier age.

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31 Comments so far ↓

  • blowtorch_bob

    Actually the 20-somethings should be hauling the politicians and those power-brokers responsible for the repeal of the Glass-Steigell Act in 1999 which allowed Wall Street to gamble with the savings accounts of banking institutions.

    As you know the Glass Steigell Act was passed in 1933 to safeguard against future crashes such as the one that occurred in 1929 which gave rise to the Great Depression and the first “Lost Generation.”

  • Carney

    blowtorch, stop trying to hijack a serious topic with Lyndon LaRouche crackpottery.

    • blowtorch_bob

      As it turned out the repeal of Glass_Stegell was an “economic WMD” and was much more real than WMD’s in Iraq. LOL!

  • TerryF98

    As the proposed GOP cuts will lead to another 700,000 job losses the young should be in the streets protesting the crazy policy decisions of the GOP.

  • Watusie

    They aren’t “lost”. They are “lost to Republicans”. They find you ridiculous. For very good reasons.

  • COProgressive

    David wrote;
    “Of all the things that have surprised me about the economic crisis that began almost four summers ago, the most surprising thing of all has been the indifference of American political and policy elites to the trauma of the generations below them. The elders tell the young what they should be worried about (the national debt) but refuse to listen when the young try to tell us what they actually are worried about: the waste of their first years, the forfeit of life opportunities.”

    I look back at what my generation has come through and worry about what the future holds for my kids (daughter 32, two grandsons, and my son 16). I was fortunate enough to be born at the end of WWII a time when the good ol’ US of A was in its ascendance. It was the greatest growth in our countries history with GI’s coming home and going to college on the GI Bill, businesses were starting up and jobs were aplenty. With the help of Unions, wages and benefits like employer sponsored healthcare coverage and a housing boom, not a bubble, had America growing and everyone thought the sky was the limit and that if you had some skills and a good work ethic you were assured that little house out in Levittown and a new car every couple of years in the garage.

    Today, that has all been turned on it head. With corporate executives looking toward the stockmarket to see the short term “value” of their companies and doing to their companies what would reflect best on the market price to help inflate the executive’s yearly bonuses or stock options. The focus has been on keeping costs down and keeping the market price inflated that helped to ship American jobs overseas. The American corporations planned for staying at the top for the next year and damn 5 or 10 years out. MAXIMIZE the bottom line today!

    Our government took to policing the world and fighting Communism so we developed the most useless and expensive industry ever conceived, the Military/Industrial Complex who’s only function was to blow things up and to kill people halfway around the world. As the MIC grow it spread it’s tentacles into congress and built it’s war factories into the congressional districts of those same congress menbers that voted to fund the war machines. To justify the expenditure of vast sums of American Taxpayer dollars, we followed a foreign policy were we had perpetual enemies we had to either defend against or defeat. Once we became the sold “Superpower” in the world, we then switch from being policeman of the world into becoming the Bullies of the world as we started to follow the Neo-Nitwit’s plan of “Pax Americana” and invaded an oil rich country in an attempt to loot their oil.

    All the military adventurism over the last 60 years has done nothing but drain our Treasure and steal the future from our children. Even today we are spending $2,800 Million dollars a WEEK in Afghanistan, that’s $145,600 Million dollars a year. By contrast, a Single Payer Healthcare System that would cover ALL Americans would cost $100,000 Million dollars a year.

    It’s easy to see where our countries priorities are.

    Going back to Blowtorch’s comment, the congress back then saw a problem with the Capitalist system in our country after the abuses that lead to the Great Depression and fixed it. It worked for some seventy years protecting our economy from the fools of greed. That changed in the late 90′s and we have seen, once again, the short term interest of a few working to destroy the long term peace and prosperity for the many. And the fools in Washington are dumbstruck to fix it once again.

    I could go on about the effort of the business community and the Republicans in congress to drive down American wages and destroy the job benefits I enjoyed during my work life and now they’re trying to pull the rug out from the “entitlements” we have paid into during a lifetime of working.

    At the rate we are slipping into lower wages and less benefits for our labor, it seems that the Oligarchs, with the support and help of the Republican Party, they won’t be satisfied until the American standard of living is on a par with the standard of living in China, India or Vietnam.

    And all these years I had though that only in America each generation would be a little better off than the last. I don’t see that anymore. The curve has been bent……downward.

    I despair for the future of my kids and it’s due to the short sightedness of my generation. Shame on us.

  • hisgirlfriday

    As someone under 30, THANK YOU DAVID FRUM for talking about this.

    And Carney, pointing out the repercussions of both Democrats and Republicans conspiring to shatter Glass-Steagall and being outraged that even after TARP neither party has the courage/common sense to address the too-big-to-fail problem in this country’s financial sector does not make one a LaRouche crackpot.

  • Diomedes

    They aren’t “lost”. They are “lost to Republicans”. They find you ridiculous. For very good reasons.

    Which is why you will see a massive paradigm shift in the political arena of our country in the next several years.

    Take a look at the middle east right now. Not to say anything going on here even comes close to that turmoil; but the true engine of change was the youth. They finally got fed up with the previous generation’s lackluster performance and their consistent predilection towards old world thinking.

    A similar wave shift is happening here. Our youth no longer buys into the old fear mongering tactics that so easily swayed their parents. Gay marriage? Who cares. Terrorists at our doorstep? Only if they can get their bronze age canoe across the Atlantic.

    The youth now is focussed on what is really important: prosperity and individual opportunites. Right now, thanks to the policies of their predecessors, they are saddled with substantially more debt, have less job prospects thanks to outsourcing and have to contend with the prospect of paying into two systems (social security and medicare) which will be bankrupt by the time they need them.

    And what does this youth demographic hear on a regular level? They are lazy. They are slackers. They are immature.

    You want to know what is immature? Believing that being gay is immoral because a book written 2000 years ago by a bunch of bronze age goat herders tells you so. What else is immature? Painting the world in simplistic terms; we are the good guys and those are the bad guys. Or how about believing the country will somehow heal itself by running massive budget deficits at the expense of the next generation. Immature and immoral. Or maybe constantly touting that evolution is false and then sticking your fingers in your ears and saying “la la la” when all the evidence for it is brought in front of you.

    From my perspective, as a Generation Xer, I can say that the damage caused by the baby boomer nitwit generation is going to take about 5 generations to fix. These selfish morons spent their lives with the something for nothing mentality while being all pious about their superiority and constant demagogery of anyone had violated their worldview.

    So to all the Generation Yers out there, know that the Generation X crowd considers you kin. I applaud your tolerant worldview and your realization of the world as a global village.

    • geojen

      Thank you Diomedes! As a 28-year old, everyone my age thinks the boomers are the most immature, self-absorbed bunch of whiners ever birthed in this country. Everything, (everything!) is about them. Take Ryan’s “roadmap” for example. It can be distilled to the following: young people, please continue to pay taxes your entire working life to enable seniors and boomers to have social security and socialized medicine. However, because the private markets are so great ( for you–not us!) when you get to be old, you can tough it out on the private market for insurance. Nice. Sorry, but my generation is not composed of a bunch of idiots. We see through this self-preserving nonsense. And don’t even get us started on these ridiculous culture wars these people indulge in. The boomers have solved exactly zero problems in the past 2 decades and created dozens more with their can-kicking and head-in-the-sand behavior.

  • rbottoms

    Remember, all abortion, abortion, abortion all the time kiddies.

  • Tempest in a Frumpot

    My wife is 28, has 3 kids 8 and under and works weekends as an LPN in Nursing homes while going for her RN during the week. My wife is way too busy to call anyone to account. I also have a 23 year old nephew working in Thailand in financial investments, and a niece going to Africa in the Peace Corps. For many, this is not a lost generation, but one with unprecedented opportunities, one previous generations could never have had.

  • JeninCT

    I agree this is a great discussion to be having, and I agree with Tempest that the experiences among my many twenty-something nieces and nephews are far from gloomy. Some have travelled the world and others already have tremendous achievements under their belts.

    As someone who came of age during the early eighties, I can say with certainty that experiencing tough times like these when you are young can be a good lesson. These young people will learn political activism and resiliency.

  • PatrickQuint

    There is a cultural ennui among the 20-something generation. This may be due to high unemployment (likely a factor, but that has the effect of causing *unrest* in other parts of the world, not political enervation).

    Here’s a hypothesis: the paradigm of “go to school, get good marks, go to college, get a job” doesn’t work nearly as well today as it did when the Baby Boomers were growing up. With a glut of post-secondary graduates on the market, having a degree is far from a guarantee of getting a job. According to this theory, the illusion has disillusioned a great many young people.

    Another hypothesis: society is wealthy in the west, to the point where young men don’t see much value in getting a good job. The problem here is that real wages have declined in recent years. Despite this, innovation in communication technologies may have still created a significant increase in quality of life not accounted for by traditional measures.

    I’ll throw this one out too: entertainment is too effective. The entertainment industry has become so effective that doing real work is simply too boring by comparison. Our society spends untold billions making the best entertainment possible, psychologically engineered to be as attention-grabbing as possible. Maybe it worked. The better entertainment becomes in comparison to work, the greater the number of people will shy away from work.

    Let’s see if this one sticks. Young men no longer see a need for a good job. They may feel fulfilled by the life they have in a low-skilled job. We may be nearing an Orwellian point at which you don’t need to have a lot of money in order to be entertained… so you don’t need a good job. This ties into the theory above, I suppose.

  • Tempest in a Frumpot

    One other point, I do agree there is a significant amount of young people who will likely be a lost generation, the millions and millions of High school dropouts. I really do not know what the long range solution for these people are.

    • Cforchange

      Tempest – these are the Charlie Sheen’s minus 1.8 mil per episode but they do cost us $75k per year if incarcerated and who knows how much in the revolving world of arrests, court processing, public defending… Plain “existing home” middle class communities have had to tolerate these folks for the past decade, lower middle class communities have been gutted by them.

      The German education system would work wonders in producing varied skilled citizens that are useful to society. Why we can’t come to real school reform is baffling and teachers nor unions are solely responsible. It’s the left/right battle – we can’t get over this and so we accomplish little.
      Even in the “best” American schools, there are students who are not the right fit for the single dimension curriculum.

  • nikhil_gupta

    Thank you David.

  • KBKY

    “I can say with certainty that experiencing tough times like these when you are young can be a good lesson. These young people will learn political activism and resiliency.”

    Except, they aren’t really learning political activism. While many youth got out and voted for the 2008 presidential election, we aren’t seeing rallies, protests, or letter writing campaigns. I don’t mean this as an insult against the youth at all, I know how incredibly stressful and busy job hunting can be, but I don’t think that the lesson being learned is how to be polically active. This may be due to apathy, cynicism, or plain exhaustion. I’m sure the answer is different for each person.

    In terms of resiliency, I agree that this is a great trait, but I’m sure that the youth would give that away for an up-to-15% increase in wages (or a job). This article ( says that the effect can lessen after a decade, but if you consider that many raises are percentage-based, I could see it lasting for a lot longer than that. It’s a highly unfortunate situation and I’m looking forward to the other parts of this series.

    For those interested, I really like David Brooks’ new article which addresses some of these issues:

    • JeninCT

      Good point about political activism, actually.

      In terms of resiliency, I agree that this is a great trait, but I’m sure that the youth would give that away for an up-to-15% increase in wages (or a job).

      It doesn’t work that way. Resiliency is a trait that cannot be taught in a classroom, they will earn without knowing it, and use throughout their life. It has no cash value but it is priceless.

  • JonF

    Re: Actually the 20-somethings should be hauling the politicians and those power-brokers responsible for the repeal of the Glass-Steigell Act in 1999 which allowed Wall Street to gamble with the savings accounts of banking institutions.

    The mortgage meltdown would have occured regardless. It’s vehicle for metastizing into the general economy was mortgage securitization. Glass-Steagal did not prevent or address that.

    • blowtorch_bob

      The lack of the Glass-Steagel act made things much worse. It gave Wall a an almost limitless supply of cash to shovel into the housing bubble, cash which was pilfered out countless savings account.

      Not to worry if things went sour. Banks had this thing called depositors insurance. Check out the number of bank bailouts this year.

      Now there is a movement afoot to blame the politicans for this mess. You see it was the politicans who changed the rules and Wall Street had to go along to get along.

      But it was Wall Street which pressured Washington to remove Glass-Steagell.

  • buddyglass

    I’m going to be a grumpy old fogey here…

    If you’re a young person of reasonable intelligence who has applied himself to the pursuit of an employable degree and you’re willing to relocate “anywhere”, then you should generally not be hurting for a job.

    If you are hurting for a job then you’re either too inflexible with respect to location, failed to apply yourself somewhere along the way, or took a risk (and paid for it) in choosing a degree that wasn’t especially employable. (Or you just started with too many cards stacked against you and weren’t able to overcome that handicap- here using ‘handicap’ in the golf sense.)

    Too harsh?

  • jerseychix


    GenXer here, with plenty of 30something and 20 something friends. I have a professional degree (DVM) and I was told up one way and down the other I would never want for a job because I was going into non traditional veterinary medicine. HA. We are willing to move, and I have 2 kids and am pregnant with the next. There just isn’t any job to move TO. You are very naive if you think flexibility is going to get one a job. It isn’t. Heck, I may pick up my family and move 500miles away to graduate school when I already have 1 BA, most of a BS, a DVM and I still can’t get a job.

    Plus, I am a veteran. A disabled one at that. Hasn’t helped one whit in terms of grad school applications or job applications.

    As I see it, the problem is that the people ahead of me have no money to retire, so they aren’t. I picked the kind of medicine I do specifically because it can be done long after traditional vet med breaks one down. But, with the housing implosion and the stock market implosion, the folks ahead of me can’t afford to retire. No one is expanding R&D, small biotech companies are outsourcing their pipeline to south Asia, and states can’t afford to hire regulatory vets.

    And my story is HARDLY unique.

    So to all those people so bent on saving benefits for themselves that my generation is currently paying for, you better damn grateful that we are more compassionate than you are because you are gleefully selling us out. Just don’t forget, we are the ones who are going to be choosing your nursing home. And when we have no money, and SS, Medicare, and Medicaid have no money, it will be YOUR responsibility to apply to the oil companies, Koch brothers, and Wall street to get some one to pay for your care.

  • John Q

    The elders tell the young what they should be worried about (the national debt) but refuse to listen when the young try to tell us what they actually are worried about: the waste of their first years, the forfeit of life opportunities.

    The Republican Party’s policy impoverishment can be seen in the three great denials of reality:

    Denial that we are here as a result of a process of evolution;
    Denial that our future is threatened by potentially catastrophic climate change;
    Denial that Keynesian economic policies work to stimulate employment in a poorly functioning economy.

    Up until now, I had the impression that while Mr. Frum had not succumbed to the first two denials of reality, he was among those who refused to accept economic reality. This posting gives me hope that he may be ready to ditch the Republican orthodoxy of cutting spending in a time of high unemployment, and be ready to champion what Nobel winning economists have been telling us for the last two years: right now, we need to increase spending to get people back to work, not blindly pursue policies that result in even more unemplyment.

    And yes, we do have to deal with the overhang of debt once we have a healthy economy and full employment. Perhaps Mr. Frum’s thinking will by then have evolved to the point that he will support raising taxes to generate the revenue to pay off that debt.

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  • Cforchange

    Has anyone considered that the 20-somethings can not afford the jobs currently available. Typically these folks need $800 per month or more just to cover their schools loans. The real crime that occurred here is that tuition continued to rise even as salaries experienced decline – all those except the bubble trades of and financing markets. Like every bubble, the federal government enabled this trend and grew the problem huge.

    How does it make sense that the skilled/productive blue collar worker has been idled but “green” lightly experienced college professionals needing trained must have their salaries padded by $10k per year just to cover their personal education costs. The current economy just does not permit this luxury.

    Community college alum are in hot demand these days. For many trades, nearly all graduates are placed. Huge school loans as large mortgages are out of vougue and defaulting will be painful for all.

  • buddyglass

    @jerseychix: I’m actually gen-x too. I was just playing the part of grumpy old fogey.

    It seems like in any given field there’s going to be some amount of turnover. People die, at the very least, but there’s also retirement going on even if people are trying to avoid it. So unless the demand for the service is shrinking faster than the attrition rate there should be some jobs coming available. Of course if there’s just been a big slowdown or a “bubble” of people deciding not to retire on schedule, then the rate at which jobs become available may be less than the rate at which new graduates are coming out of school with degrees.

    So some portion of those graduates are going to get stuck. But it’s like musical chairs; some of them will get the few jobs that are available. There’s some element of luck, but in general it should be the “most attractive candidates” who get those jobs. And whether or not you’re one of the “most attractive candidates” is, to a large extent, something you can control.

    All that to say…a graduate with a “reasonably employable” degree who has made himself an “attractive candidate” should not want for a job. The flip side to this is that not everybody can be the most attractive candidate. So somebody’s getting screwed.

  • sinz54

    Young people voted for Obama in huge numbers. And according to the polls, they still approve of the job he’s doing.

    So if they’re satisfied with the job he’s doing, they have no one to blame but themselves. They can’t gripe about the high and continuing youth unemployment, while simultaneously supporting the Chief Executive who presides over it with such insouciance.

    Let’s see if unemployed youth dump Obama in 2012. That will show if they’re serious.

  • Smargalicious

    This is completely absurd.

    Today, elders can hold 20-somethings to account.

    They can say:

    “Instead of taking the problem head-on and creating your own entrepeneurships, you whined about how you were entitled to high-paying jobs that should have been pre-created for you.

    “Whenever you were given jobs you were often unreliable, untrustworthy, disrespectful, and demanding.

    “Your reliance on electronic objects as social interaction training rendered you mostly a stuttering, introverted idiot unprepared for normal social discourse.”

    Shall I go on?

  • nickthap

    sinz34, your idea relies on the assumption that people blame Obama for the current economic crisis. The issue is that young people don’t have memory loss like the elderly do, who apparently have conveniently forgotten that the mortgage bubble and resulting crash was bipartisan in nature and really gained steam while the Republicans were in control.

    How is the current unemployment rate exactly the fault of Obama’s? I would agree with you if you said the stimulus was too small, but somehow I don’t think you’d agree with that. And please don’t trot out the old “business is afraid of him” or the old “uncertainity” theory.

  • fibocycle

    The baby boomers–free spirits of the 60 and 70s–idealists who foresaw a future of peace, tolerance and prosperity (real prosperity not debt delusion) have forced future generations to pay for our self-centered cravings of instant gratification…We succumbed to the vices of all generations before us–albeit at a significantly greater level of hypocrisy. Shame on US

    • Smargalicious

      Yes, I must agree with you here to a degree. The baby boomers and civil rights movement did a lot to destroy us. However, today’s generation can either whine or do something about it.