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Paul Krugman: Why Today’s Grads are Better off than Abe Lincoln

What’s the Big Idea?

The 17th-most cited economist in the world, a Nobel laureate for his work examining global wealth concentration and international trade, and the inspiration behind a viral Youtube ode, Paul Krugman is known as much for his outspoken criticism of the political handling of the great recession as he is for economic analyses. “The corrosive effects of high unemployment will cast a shadow over the economy for many years to come,” he wrote in a recent column for the New York Times — especially for young Americans.

According to conventional wisdom, the US unemployment crisis is a structural issue that will run its course, as workers leave industries that got too big in the bubble years. This perspective is dead wrong, he says, and it’s irresponsible. We’re bleeding jobs not just in specific industries, but across the board, indicating that the problem is not untrained workers but lack of sufficient demand (as in the Great Depression).

Watch our interview with Paul Krugman:

Nowhere is this more evident than in the experience of recent college graduates, who Krugman told Big Think “should be in a better position than those with lower education,” but are actually in many cases faring worse. “They’ve come out of college with a lot of debt and they’re coming into a job market that offers few jobs.”

Approximately 1 out of of every 2 grads is unemployed or working in a job that doesn’t require a bachelor’s degree. That’s the highest share in over a decade. Recent graduates are now more likely to work as “waiters, waitresses, bartenders and food-service helpers than as engineers, physicists, chemists and mathematicians combined.”

What’s the Significance?

“It’s definitely hard, and I can’t give you easy advice,” says Krugman. But even in the hardest times, effort makes a difference. Bartending or waiting tables may not have been the path you dreamed of, but for many young people it may have to be a stepping stone to any future career. It’s not personal. 

“Working even in a job that isn’t the job that you ought to have is better than not working,” says Krugman bluntly. “And also, by the way, you’re not just someone seeking a job. You’re also a citizen, so vote for politicians who promise to do something about it instead of just using the usual empty rhetoric.” 

Even those doing repetitive or boring work can stay connected to the world around them by reading the news, going to lectures and events, volunteering for a cause. Thanks to the internet, it’s never been easier to access powerful people and participate in the larger public debate: it’s happening every day on the web. Immerse yourself in it.

Civic involvement isn’t just about resume-padding, it’s about growing as an individual and a community member even if you’re not getting a paycheck. “The world will be more ready to make use of you when this crisis ends if you have been keeping up with the world,” says Krugman. “The ability to continue educating yourself is now even better than it was when Abe Lincoln was chopping logs. This is the great age of the intelligent person who wants to keep abreast and can become highly educated, can become an expert even without those formal qualifications.”  


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