Engaging NJ’s Disconnected Youth Vital To Our Future


For so many of New Jersey’s young adults this week is a time filled with a stomach churning blend of trepidation and excitement as they resume classes in high school or college.  For others in this age cohort it will be just another day on the job. Yet for tens of thousands of New Jersey’s 16 to 24 year olds it will mark just another week of idleness, since they are neither in school nor in the workplace. 

Nationally, it is estimated that there are 5.5 million 16 to 24- year olds demographers describe as “disconnected youth.” Globally this number is said to exceed 100 million. In Mexico disengaged young people ages 14 to 24 year old are dubbed “los ninis”, neither in  school nor at work. Estimates range that there are between seven to ten million of them in Mexico who are ready recruits for narco traffickers. 

Around the world, especially in already conflict prone regions, this idling of a generation has become combustible and remains one of the greatest threats to global peace and security. The International Labor Organization estimates it is as high as 30 percent in North Africa.

Pope Francis took note of the crisis in his 2016 end of the year message from the Vatican. “We have condemned our young people to have no place in society, because we have slowly pushed them to migrate or to beg for jobs that no longer exit or fail to promise them a future,” he wrote. Youth unemployment is 36 percent in Italy.  

Here in the US, the macro socio-economic consequences of this many young people being sidelined so early in their lives is profound yet barely breaksthrough the national noise. Here in the US, according to Opportunity Nation, a non-profit, the five million plus “young adults who are not in school or working cost taxpayers $93 billion annually and $1.6 trillion over their lifetimes in lost revenues and increased social services.”

While it might be hard for us to move the needle on this global problem, we ignore its local manifestation at our peril for these young people wasting in waiting are our children, our relatives and the children of our neighbors. Just like the nation as a whole, New Jersey is aging, and our ability to make good on intra-generational social contracts like social security rests entirely on the success of future generations.  

Based on the latest data set available there are 118,177 disconnected New Jersey 16 to 24 year olds. (That’s more than two full Yankee Stadiums worth.) Statewide 11.4 percent of this cohort falls into this idle zone. But in eleven counties, the percentage is higher than that; Cumberland 21.2 percent, Essex  17.5 percent, Hunterdon 17.4 percent,  Salem 16.6 percent, Passaic  16 percent, Cape May 15.1 percent, Camden 15 percent, Atlantic County 14.8 percent, Hudson14.2 percent, Warren 12.8 percent, Union 11.6 percent.

Just like their peers across the nation, New Jersey’s 19 to 24 years olds have to find their way in an economy that still has yet to fully recover from the Great Recession and the evaporation of $20 trillion in household wealth. The labor force participation rate, at just 62.9 percent, continues to be at an historic low, with several million Americans stuck in part-time jobs and the average work week at an anemic 33.7 hours per week. And as the Economic Policy Institute observed this spring, wage gains continue to disappoint, failing to match gains made in every previous modern era recovery. 

Back in 2014 the Pew Research Center flagged that contraction in household wealth and erosion of retirement savings motivated older Americans to stay on the job, or come out of retirement, which put them in competition with younger workers looking for their first job. “This trend intensified during the recession and reflected a variety of factors: the need for older Americans to keep working either because of economic conditions or reductions in government and unemployment benefits; the greater number of women who had entered the workforce and chose to stay; and the improving health of older Americans that permitted them to stay active longer,” according to Pew. “The story is different for younger Americans. The share of 20- to 24-year-olds who were in the workforce stood at 76.4% in 2002, fell to 70.9% in 2012 and is projected to drop to 67.3% in 2022, which would be the lowest rate since 1969.”

While much of that drop in workforce participation can be chalked up to the pursuit of higher education, it doesn’t account or all of it.  And as the Atlantic reported in 2012, it was this young age cohort that was hit hardest by the after shocks of the Great Recession because their  “median earnings fell more…..than any other cohort, and college debt, most of which is held by 20-somethings” was  “at an all-time high.” In New Jersey two-thirds of our college students that graduate have on average $30,000 in debt according to the Institute for College Access and Success. 

While things did improve somewhat for this year’s college graduates, the confluence of what maybe long term structural changes to our economy, means their prospects still lag those who graduated in 2000, according to the Economic Policy Institute. However, compared with those who graduated into the 2000 labor market, the Class of 2017 still faces real economic challenges, as demonstrated by elevated levels of unemployment and underemployment, and the large share of graduates who still remain “idled” by the economy (because they are neither enrolled in further schooling nor employed),”EPI found.  “Furthermore, the overall measures mask large gaps in employment outcomes between young graduates of different races and genders—some of which have worsened since the Great Recession.”

So what’s to be done? First, we have to make this a focal point of our political debate in  both the state legislative races and the Gubernatorial contest. Ignoring the issue doesn’t make it go away.  Each county needs a plan with faith based and community groups initiating the engagement. Local business groups and chamber of commerces need to be included.

Back when I was a 20-something, without a job, I signed up for the Carter-era Comprehensive Employment Training Act (CETA) with Bergen County. We produced performing arts events including the first New Jersey Dance Festival. I learned logistics, marketing and the tech side of theater production.

Working as a CETA participant I got paid while I learned from an avuncular former bank vice president, who had lost his bank job, how to tie a tie and the value of management by objective. Getting my next job was a  lot easier with that resume builder. Over 40 years of a working life Iater I know I  acquired more and skills because older people trusted me with their expensive tools, which included Ford front-end loaders, trucks, chainsaws, and  jack hammers.

I could not tell you what political party any of these bosses were only that they took a chance on me. New Jersey’s 16 to 24 year old deserve nothing less.


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