Stay-at-home kids a bad sign

In 1979, The Who released its rockumentary film, “The Kids are Alright.” At the time, the United States was mired in a lousy economy, so perhaps the kids — and the adults, for that matter — weren’t really alright.

In 2013, the country again has a lousy overall economy, even with modest recent gains. And not only are the kids not alright — the youth unemployment rate in the United States is about 16 percent — increasingly, they’re adults still living at home with mom and dad.

As the Review-Journal’s Jennifer Robison reported Sunday, a whopping 36 percent of people ages 18 to 31 — 21.6 million Millenials — lived with their parents in 2012, the largest share as a percentage of the population in four decades. According to Ms. Robison’s report, experts pin the blame on social and economic trends. We say it’s the latter.

The job market for those ages 18 to 31 is terrible, with new positions frequently providing only part-time or low-paying work. More college graduates are working at jobs that not only don’t fit their degrees, but don’t require a degree at all.

Which leads to another noteworthy factor: higher education. In 2007, 35 percent of people ages 18 to 24 were enrolled in college. Last year, that number was up to 39 percent, according to Ms. Robison’s report. At first blush, one would think it’s great that more young people are going to college, because doing so long has been seen as a guarantee for a higher standard of living. Thousands upon thousands of U.S. high school students are pushed into college, where they can rack up tens of thousands — even hundreds of thousands — of dollars in debt, all too often for a degree that won’t command a salary that covers the debt.

In fact, these days, it might not get them a job at all. And there are plenty who never complete their studies, yet are still saddled with debt, having lost valuable potential money-earning years. No doubt, millions of young men and women live with their parents because of the burden of student loan debt, which exceeds this country’s total credit card debt.

To be sure, colleges share a big chunk of the blame, with ever-spiraling tuition. The schools know the government will dole out and guarantee all those student loans, so there’s little pressure for colleges to control costs. Some graduates and many politicians then make political hay about the interest rates on these loans — which, historically speaking, are still extremely good — without blaming the real culprit: the principal balance brought on by the cost of setting foot on a college campus.

Add up all these factors, and you have parents everywhere reluctantly proclaiming, “Welcome back home, kids. (Sigh.)”

Improvement in the unemployment rate, home values, the stock markets or any other oft-cited economic indicators aren’t the best sign of an end to this country’s economic malaise. Rather, when parents can reclaim their homes from 20- and 30-somethings, that will be the truest signal the economy is strengthening and that, indeed, the kids are alright.

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