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Heffner: New college grads need hope, too

Photo Credit: M. Ryder/Tribune Media Services Illustration

Many college seniors will face a rude awakening when they enter the job market after graduation this month.

It's true that the employment hunt was launched well before commencement day. And some degree-bound New Yorkers (and Americans generally) have secured short-term job placements.

But no matter how early they started, more young Americans will be struggling than we've seen in recent years, in an economy that is terrible for millennials.

According to an analysis of government data for The Associated Press, more than half of higher education grads younger than 25 are unemployed or underemployed. The report notes that job prospects for this group are the lowest they've been in more than a decade.

In light of these figures -- and the importance of the youth vote, whose heavy pro-Democrat margin in 2008 contributed to President Barack Obama's victory -- it was surprising last week to see the president focus so narrowly on the issue of expiring lower interest rates for student loans during his tour of swing-state campuses.

Paying off student loans is important. But many of us are just as worried -- if not more concerned -- about becoming self-sufficient in this difficult job market. To recapture the potential political energies and electoral turnout in November among young people, Obama has to appeal to the entire 18-25 year old cohort.

This includes his 2008 supporters -- many of whom, according to data gathered by Harvard's Institute of Politics, are disillusioned in what they feel, quite personally, is a continued and pervasive Great Recession. And it includes newcomers to college, who are probably more idealistic and free of immediate economic strain.

And, of course, this includes current students and recent grads who shoulder moderate-to-considerable student loans -- as well as those graduates fortunate enough to exit collegiate coursework debt-free.

Most of all, it includes people who fear that even though we possess solid experience, qualifications and skills, we're not going to make enough of a buck to get by -- much less to thrive or support a family one day.

The president will need to tackle the wider problem of precipitously declining social mobility for the millennial generation.

We know a great deal about what the future holds, and it doesn't look good. Even among those recent grads who have jobs, average salaries have dipped. Employers are providing fewer opportunities for pensions and savings plans that don't crash and burn from market instability. And once-enduring government programs that have assured the non-Warren Buffetts the promise of a happy retirement -- most important, Medicare and Social Security -- will be insolvent by Gen Y's 40th birthday unless the president and Congress do something soon to shore them up.

Solutions to such financial inequity and entitlement problems will undoubtedly require hard pills to swallow -- higher taxes among them. As the president well knows, there are no silver bullets to fix the American economy. Nor are there any to fix the economic hardship of jobless or minimal-wage-earning college grads.

But when he talks to college students at Barnard and the Air Force Academy this commencement season, President Obama will have to articulate a bold vision and specific policy that pave a way to social mobility for the next generation. More than the loan issue, that will rejuvenate the confidence of young Americans.

Alexander Heffner is a senior concentrating in history at Harvard University.