Tougher for Them than Their Parents: Young Workers: Hit Hard, Hitting Back

EDITOR’S NOTE:  This AFL-CIO report on younger American workers fits with so much that we care about here.  Thanks to Tula Connell of the AFL-CIO and Liz Shuler, the union’s secretary-treasurer, for sharing it with us.

As newly elected secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, I traveled the country this fall, talking with workers and hearing their concerns. The economic crisis is causing a lot of pain. So many people have no jobs, no health care—and are even losing their homes. And as I looked into the faces of young workers, the reality hit home that these young people are part of the first generation in recent history likely to be worse off than their parents.

This is a tragedy. 

The AFL-CIO and our community affiliate, Working America, recently surveyed young workers—and I’m not talking about 17- and 18-year-olds. I’m talking about 18- to 34-year-olds. In the past 10 years, young workers have suffered disproportionately from the downturn in the economy:

  • One in three young workers is worried about being able to find a job—let alone a full-time job with benefits.
  • Only 31 percent make enough money to cover their bills and put some aside—and that is 22 percentage points worse than it was 10 years ago.
  • Nearly half worry about having more debt than they can handle.
  • One in three still lives at home with their parents.

 Young workers are living the effects of a 30-year campaign to create a low-wage workforce. It succeeded.

For decades, the far right led an anti-government, anti-investment, feed-the-rich-and-starve-the-poor drive that gave us an era of deregulation, privatization and job exporting.

At the same time, corporations and government attacked unions and workers’ freedom to form unions and bargain for decent wages and benefits. When unions are strong, paychecks grow and workers have benefits like health care and pensions.

When unions are under attack, paychecks shrink. Pensions vanish. Health care becomes the emergency room.

What’s left is not working for young people—or any of us. It will take a broadly shared sense of wartime urgency to replace today’s low-wage economy with a high-wage, high-skills economy. The first step must be immediate action to address the nation’s jobs crisis, with five essential steps:

1.     Extend the lifeline for jobless workers.

2.     Rebuild America’s schools, roads and energy systems and invest in green technology and green jobs.

3.     Increase aid to state and local governments to maintain vital services.

4.     Fund jobs in our communities.

5.     Put TARP funds to work for Main Street with job-creating loans to small businesses.

We’ll took these initiatives to the White House Summit on Jobs and then to Congress for urgent action.

It’s time to rebuild an economy that works—an economy based on prosperity, that we can be proud to pass on to our children, and theirs. And we need young people to lead the way. That survey I mentioned earlier shows they are ready.   

  • Young workers have a whole new level of civic engagement, with the surge of new voters in the 2008 election.
  • They are well-informed and following government and policy news.
  • They believe in collective action, and understand the power of having a union.
  • They have hope for the future, and the vision of a savvy, diverse movement to bring about progressive change.

We’re planning a major summit for young workers after the first of the year to bring all our ideas and voices together. When crises hit, it’s young people who drive change.

Martin Luther King Jr. was 26 when he led the Montgomery bus boycott. At 25, César Chávez was registering Mexican Americans to vote. Walter Reuther headed strikes demanding GM recognize its workers’ rights starting when he was 30. Elizabeth Cady Stanton was 33 when she drafted the declaration of women’s rights.

Young people are being hard in this jobs crisis. But I believe they provide much of the fuel we need to get out of it.




by Liz Shuler, AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer


Mervi R.
Mervi R7 years ago

Thanks for posting this.

Terry S.
Terry S7 years ago

I think the point that is being missed here is the fact that inflation has continued to advance, while wages have remained basically flat. Thus the worker has no money to save let alone buy insurance in any form. Prior to the 1970's, employers where concerned about being good corporate citizens. Their employees where important assets to the corporation. Now, the employees is a tool for only making money. As soon as the employee is no longer profitable, like old equipment, they are to be disposed of. Since low pay always means there is another sucker to fill the position, there is no incentive to keep the employee. Thanks to offshoreing, you do not even have to worry about employees, since those issues are handled by someone else for a flat fee. No muss, no fuss. All profit, at least for a little while.

Roger R.
Past Member 7 years ago

Why don't we AMERICANS buy HEALTH BONDS....just like War Bonds were sold to pay for the war.
Imagine the "kitty" we'd all have to invest (without government intervention) to pay for reasonable healthcare, have some competition over the "Monsters", and use some of the money to promote new inventions to put people back to work in this raped country? huh? I live outside the box.....could care less about making this "system" work....I have no faith in the minds involved in the mismanaged creation of this problem and those SAME HANDS involved in reform....duh?
I support RE-ELECT NO-ONE! ...due to corruption!

Terry S.
Terry S7 years ago

If you look at the proposals here you will see much of the failed policies of the past revisited. While rebuilding infrastructure is good, the problem is the stimulus they create is short lived. Another point is we no longer have the skilled trades that we did when the WPA existed. While this may be good for construction trades in the long run, they will not create the same things that the WPA did, since the quality of the materials are much lower, and as well mostly imported. Chinese Drywall.

The rest of the proposal is primarily service oriented work. We need Manufacturing Jobs. you know, the ones we exported because they polluted the environment. While nothing else will make it, those jobs are being completely ignored by our government. As a matter of fact, the meeting in Copenhagen. was to shed more. What may be left after that, will be removed by Cap and Trade. Paul Puckett is correct when he says that most of the damage has been caused by the left, yet for some reason the unions keep coming back for more. This time they cough up $9M. In return, what did they get GM? Wow, what happened to card check? Ooops. Unions are about to get another kick in the rubber parts as the Telcos start to dump workers. G3 Technology will eliminate all need for Lans and Cable TV. The 1GB transfer rate will more then supply the need, and the whole operation can be done offshore. That cherry prospect adds another 100K unemployed in the next 5 years. Happy Happy Joy Joy!

Neysa Ortiz
Neysa Ortiz7 years ago

Finally some recognition for our struggles. I remember growing up and hearing about my father's childhood being tough. I'm realizing there are lots of similarities in my present life and his past.

Abo Ahmed r.
Abo r7 years ago


Cyndi Johnson
Cyndi Johnson7 years ago

Young people are told or raised to be respectful to their elders; and draw from their advice. On that note, what kind of a message are we sending the next generation by showing them that there is no equality; by this I mean unless they have money they do not stand a chance. The wealthy manufacturers are farming out work to China or elsewhere for the proverbial buck. How does this help our economy if we can't employ our people? Do we not want to keep our money here where it has the opportunity to keep the jobs here? Do the manufacters realize that people want to buy the products from here? Overseas products tend to be poorly made and it doesn't help our economy if we aren't buying. If we can employ our people we keep expenses down,it cuts the unemployment rate,it keeps the welfare rolls down,social services can then help the people who
need to get back on track.They can then pay taxes that help local government afford the services that we have taken for granted (police,fire,community centers).I'm all for helping people who need it,but....doesn't charity start at. We have chronic homeless, and now we have people applying for benefits because we are in a recession. People who thought that they would never see a shelter much less than live in on; same goes for the Welfare office. Do we want to have our young people seeking these services before they even get a shot for a job?What kind of amessage is this sending? If we keep sending jobs overseas; then we give them false HOPE!!!

Aimee O.
Aimee Osmulski7 years ago

do they actually care or do they just take polls? I have been out of work since July 2009 & normally would have a job the next day. It affects more than jsut your wallet, believe me. I just think its crazy that they can pay people 2 take these stupid surveys while at the same time going overseas 2 find cheaper labor. Once again, waiting for Karma 2 kick in & even the score

Paul Puckett
Paul Puckett7 years ago

"For decades, the far right led an anti-government, anti-investment, feed-the-rich-and-starve-the-poor drive that gave us an era of deregulation, privatization and job exporting."

The tax policies and required benefits mandated by government are the reason that manufacturing jobs left, not the policies of the "far right". If you want manufacturing jobs, end the corporate income tax, since they don't pay it anyway. If you doubled the corporate income tax, they still wouldn't be paying the tax. Corporate taxes are paid by the customer in the form of higher prices.

And work with companies to make sure that the most profitable place they can do business is in the US.

The far left has attacked businesses for years and they have won. The businesses, admitting they lost, moved to play the game on a different field. Unions are vitally important in the manufacturing sector. They overplayed their hand, particularly the autoworkers. Defined benefit and health care plans that were negotiated are not sustainable. Working with companies and maintaining a balance between profits and labor keeps jobs in the US.

Ant m.
Ant m7 years ago

untill our goverment stops trying to kill all of our manufacturing jobs this country is doomed .... as a member of the afl- cio i know the need out there for good steel and coal jobs ... we need them back badly ....