Investing in young adults benefits us all – Mark Edwards, Executive Director of Opportunity Nation

Without question, the War on Poverty significantly improved outcomes for older Americans. Their rates of poverty plummeted more than any other demographic. The social programs created during that period, including Medicare and Social Security, continue to help our elder population.

Today, we face another urgent challenge that will require the same level of commitment and investment. Nearly 6 million young adults in the United States are floundering, unable to secure a meaningful foothold in either school or work. Twenty percent of them live in poverty, numbers that soared since the Great Recession and have remained distressingly high.

Such disconnection carries steep costs, diminishing their job prospects, earnings and savings well into adulthood. Society also suffers. According to a nonprofit youth advocacy group, Young Invincibles, the sky-high unemployment rate of young adults ages 16-24 costs the U.S. as much as $25 billion a year in lost tax revenue and increased social service costs.

We must create more opportunity for young Americans.

Our current education and job-training approaches are outdated, and must be revamped if we are to meet the challenges of our increasingly global and technical economy. In 1973, just 28 percent of U.S. jobs required an associate’s degree or better. By 2020, more than 65 percent of jobs will require such credentials. We are not equipping our rising generation to meet these workforce demands, especially compared to our international peers.

In order to stay competitive globally and meet the demands of the current and future American workforce, we must:

  • Strengthen pathways to school and careers, including improving career and technical education.
  • Help more students graduate from high school.
  • Work with employers to expand internships and apprenticeships.
  • Make it easier to save for education and job training after high school.

Slowly, we are building consensus on many of these issues. Elected officials from both sides of the aisle have spoken passionately about the need to focus the nation’s energy on expanding opportunity and increasing economic mobility. Now is the time for more people to come to the table. This effort must involve all sectors – including business, civic and religious organizations and nonprofits.

But our government also has a major role to play. We urge President Obama and Congressional leaders to focus energy and resources on education and career pathways for young Americans – a talent pool that has been overlooked in the wake of the Great Recession.

Just as the War on Poverty helped the elderly, our nation must now help our youth. These young Americans are going to be the engines of our country’s growth. It’s imperative that we reconnect the young people who have fallen off track, and support youth who are currently on track.

Unless we act now, we’re going to be underperforming as a country for decades to come. Let’s commit to bringing public, private and nonprofit sectors together to create strong educational and career pathways. Only then will young adults get their fair shot at the American Dream.

– Mark Edwards is the Executive Director of Opportunity Nation, a national, bipartisan and cross-sector campaign of more than 300 organizations focused on expanding economic mobility and closing the opportunity gap for more Americans.

This post is part of the War on Poverty blog series from REDF.