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Politicians should pay heed to the youthful demonstators

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The Occupy Wall Street demonstrations across the country in recent weeks draw on a range of frustrations. As spontaneous gatherings, they have yet to articulate a clear message. But the number and the perseverance of the demonstrators require our attention.

Many of the demonstrators profiled in press coverage are young college graduates who are unemployed or doing low-paid work unrelated to their degrees. Like the 'Arab Spring' demonstrators of the Middle East, these young Americans have time, energy and reason to take to the streets.

In earlier decades a new college graduate entering the workforce simply assumed there would be a job to fill. The choice of position was based on pay and opportunities for advancement. Hiring slowed during recessions and came back when the economy recovered.

Three years ago failing financial institutions sent the economy over a cliff. Normal business activity ceased. Many workers were laid off and new hiring virtually stopped.

Since then the economy has scrambled part way back up the cliff. What has not happened is a return to a normal job market. Many of the graduates from college or professional schools in the past three years continue to hunt for an opening in their field. Ironically, the Wall Street bankers who are at least partly to blame for the collapse are now pulling in huge bonuses.

What makes the plight of many young graduates so difficult is the burden of debt taken on to finance their educations. Loan balances in five or six figures are typical. An income at minimum wage or little more cannot pay off such debt. Several years ago Congress changed the law so that student loans generally are not eliminated by bankruptcy. A young job-seeker with big debt is simply stuck.

Colleges and universities share some responsibility for this situation, accepting more applicants than reasonably can find work in their chosen field while knowing that many of them will borrow to cover tuition. For-profit schools are the worst offenders, too often just milking federal loan guarantees. But traditional institutions as well boost enrollment in some fields beyond what the labor market can absorb.

As the families of college and graduate school students will attest, tuition costs have spiraled upward much faster than general inflation. Community colleges and public universities previously offered an affordable alternative. But state and federal support has dropped off in an era of chronically tight budgets, requiring students to pick up an ever larger part of the price tag. In the 21st Century higher education is not 'public' in the way it was several decades ago.

There is a generational tension in all of this. We baby boomers received the benefit of education that was truly public, launching careers when jobs were more available. As we approach retirement, the costs of Medicare and Social Security are rising substantially and, because of the number of boomer voters, look politically untouchable. Deficit hawks go after other areas of public spending, including higher education.

Societies with a large disparity of wealth are inherently less stable than those with greater equality. And when inequality disadvantages the young, instability is likely to be even greater. While youthful demonstrators have yet to deliver a clear message, politicians should respond to the economic grievances bringing them into the streets.

Greg Macpherson is a resident of Lake Oswego and former State Representative for District 38.