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A place for everyone

By August Heckscher / June 6, 1980



No problem of our society is more troubling and pervasive than the joblessness of young people -- those in the period between adolescence and adulthood, with 16 and 17 being the crucial years. Prosperity may come or go, but the solid core of youthful unemployment remains. It is not greatly eased when the economy picks up; and when it is down, we are reminded the more vivdly of the waste and even the misery that is entailed. Recent studies show the proportion of young people without work to be about 20 percent, with the percentage going almost as high as 40 for certain minorities.

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Some older people may question whether youth really wantsm to work. It must be assumed that they do; even those who "drop out" seem to be looking for something they can really get into. A survey giving the figures for unemployment cited above, states: "These youngsters were, for the most part, willing to work at anything -- and for less than the minimum wage." The trouble was not with them, but with a market from which they appeared to be systematically excluded.

There is ample evidence of an attitude within the social system hostile to youthful job-holders. Industry is too often reluctant to make the special efforts required to bring young people into the work force. Labor unions keep apprentice jobs to a minimum and tend to hand them out to the offspring of their own members. But the worst offenders are probably the educators, who keep youth in the classroom when they should be out taking the first steps toward independence, and who provide them with a kind of knowledge that has little to do with the world of work.

Whatever else is done, the high schools of this country will have to be made over if youth is to make a genial accomodation to the realities of earning a living. Some schools have experimented in this field, combining work and learning during the last two high school years, much as people at later stages combine work and leisure. The skills that can be acquired within a school must be fortified by certain skills that are essential to a working life. These include cooperation with others, promptness, carefulness, fidelity to trust. Vocational education got a bad name, perhaps because it was taught by poor teachers; but it contains a seed which needs to be reexamined.

Having said so much about the tasks of the older generation, I come to the young and to their involvement in this matter. The paradox they face is that while jobs in their age-group are lacking, work of many kinds is needed by society. A lack of capable hands in areas that range from gardening to typing, from baby-sitting to odd painting chores, is felt in almost every neighborhood and community. Services to older citizens or people in need present unfilled opportunities. Jobs in these fields may not present career opportunities, and workers may not be paid at existing minimum wage rates. But for 16 and 17-year olds, they may provide substantial rewards and prepare the way for more remunerative and more permanent job-holding.

Today many youths are held to be "unemployable." The bitter fact is that the longer they lack jobs the more unemployable they become. Somehow the vicious circle must be broken. The importance of taking hold of some small segment of the world's work, and making it one's own, is that it gets the individual out of the rut of despair and into the arena where real prizes are to be won.

I know how complex this whole problem is -- how social conditions in the mass of society, and amid the turbulence of the inner cities, leave too many young people lacking in motivation, in basic skills, in personal qualities necessary to a productive life. But even in the worst conditions young people -- somem young people -- can examine themselves and develop whatever aptitude or gift most conforms to their nature. Our society is in certain regards baffingly inefficient and inhumane, but it cannot in the long run close the doors of opportunity to young people truly prepared to work.