A new lost generation?

This summer many high-school and college students have found themselves without jobs.

Writing in the New York Times, Mickey Meece says the economic strain on employers is forcing a decrease in available jobs, and many of those are being filled by unemployed adults with far greater qualifications: “Students seeking summer jobs, generally 16 to 24 years old, are at the end of the job line, behind the jobless baby boomers who are competing with new college graduates who, in turn, are trying to elbow out undergraduates and high school students.”

Other than making poor students even poorer, what effect does this have on them?

Going to work is so different from going to school that the experience can be immeasurably valuable. In a work environment, students must take responsibility for their actions, show respect to their supervisors and co-workers, develop organizational skills, learn to budget their time, and learn to put personal goals and desires behind those of the larger organization.

Hara Estroff Marano, editor-at-large of Psychology Today, stresses the importance of job experience for young people. In the Times’ Room for Debate blog, she writes,These [jobs] involve deeper values that cannot be taught theoretically. And although there may be some rude awakenings in the workplace, on-the-job learning is likely the fastest and most indelible way to acquire the values and skills and work ethic that will carry them to their ultimate goals.”

But students don’t have to give in to the temptation to laze away the whole summer on mom and dad’s couch. They can acquire values and skills through other means, such as volunteering or working unpaid internships. These experiences give young people a sense of purpose and participation in their communities, and they help students establish the skills they might have gained through paid employment. (And they don’t look too shabby on a resume.)

Where to start? Organizations like www.volunteer.gov, www.serve.gov, and idealist.org match volunteers with opportunities that parallel their interests and skills. It’s a little late to look for summer internships now, but most job sites and job search engines list internships among the paid positions.

Helen Keller once said, “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet.” However students choose to spend their summer, they shouldn’t let the troubling economic times stand in the way of personal growth. After all, “the children are our future.” Whitney Houston said that.