PHILADELPHIA (AP) - Facing the future with a college degree is like being in a lifeboat on a roiling sea.
Facing the future with a high school degree is like being in the water.
If you're a member of the millennial generation - ages 18 to 34 - who never got beyond 12th grade, expect hard times, say people who study the transition from youth to adulthood.
"There's nothing for these kids," said Maria Kefalas, a St. Joseph's University sociologist. "Absolutely nothing."
Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, put it this way: "It's remarkable how much trouble they're in."
It's not simply the recession and its robust half-life that stymie high-school-only young people.
Thirty years of jobs moving from Main Street to Mumbai and elsewhere; of the American workplace being wired with robots and computers that perform the jobs that factory workers and office clerks once did; of neutered unions, shrunken wages, and diminished benefits - all of this has changed the nature of work and has made people who use their hands, backs, and working-class smarts nearly as obsolete as VCRs.
"I don't see a future or an ability to retire," said Brian Haney, 31, an unemployed Northeast Philadelphia resident with only a high school degree. "There'll be one low-wage job after another ahead of me. It's just a nightmare."
The national unemployment rate for people ages 18 to 19 with only high school degrees is 22.7 percent, according to new, non-seasonally adjusted calculations by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics; for people 20 to 24, it's 16.4 percent; for those 25 to 34, 10.4 percent. Throughout the United States, overall unemployment is currently 7.7 percent.
In Philadelphia, some 23 percent of people with only high school diplomas ages 18 to 34 were without work between 2007 and 2011, the highest rate in the region. That's compared with 4.8 percent unemployment among similar-aged Philadelphians with bachelor's degrees, according to census data analyzed for The Inquirer by economist Paul Harrington, director of the Center for Labor Markets and Policy at Drexel University.
Although the economy is improving, high-school-only graduates still find themselves pressured on all sides. They compete with immigrants for unskilled construction work. They're aced out of traditional service jobs by young people with college degrees who can't find work on their own level. And they're applying for the same underpaying jobs at the mall that their friends are, all of them members of a star-crossed generation that's huge in number but short on options.
Of course, high school graduates understand that a postsecondary education - a certificate, an associate degree, or a bachelor's - is the best way up and out. But scholarly rigor isn't for everyone. And postsecondary prices are out of reach for many blue-collar people.
A generation ago, that would have been fine; there was plenty of decent-paying blue-collar work.
But that America is gone.
What exists now is a country that can no longer be called the land of opportunity for all.
"These kids are part of a generation that was still being told they can do anything," Kefalas said. "Well, no, you can't. There are huge barriers now.
"Kids in Kensington say they're going to be lawyers, veterinarians. It makes me crazy, because it'll never happen."
The new America has a new culture. Young men who can't find work can't afford to get married. More couples are living together, often in the homes of the woman's parents, pooling modest resources and having babies out of wedlock.
The inability of high school graduates to thrive has consequences for the entire nation. Underpaid people can't contribute significantly to the Social Security system and won't help expand the tax base.
For those whose job is to understand work and workers, few facts are more dismaying than this:
Of all the jobs available today to people with high school degrees only, just three of 10 promise a family-sustaining wage, calculated as $35,000 or above, according to Jeff Strohl, an economist and colleague of Carnevale's.
"The high school economy is dead or dying," Strohl said.
And that exerts a price, Kefalas intoned: "Kids are depressed over the uncertainties. It's one thing to be old and to have life disappointments. It's another to have a midlife crisis at 23 because the world let you down."
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