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Posted: April 07, 2009

The economy: Nightmare for the next generation

Will today's high school students become a generation of lost potential?

Mary Butler

For young people today, the current recession is the least of their economic worries. Baby boomers and the massive burden they will place on Medicare and Social Security are far greater concerns, said panelists who participated in, "The Economy: Nightmare for the Next Generation," at the Conference on World Affairs on Tuesday in Boulder. CWA, in its 61st year, runs through Friday at the University of Colorado. Panels are free and open to the public.

"I say in advance, 'Thank you,'" joked panelist Mike Franc to the large audience of teens packed into Boulder High School's auditorium for the event.   

Franc, a longtime veteran of Washington policymaking and vice president of government relations at the Heritage Foundation, however, didn't make light of the economic realities facing youth in years to come. The projected gap between financial outlays and revenues is enormous, he said, and lawmakers are doing everything they can to ignore such forecasts.

"It's not a pleasant future," said Franc, who has four children, including three teenagers.

Panelist Jim Smith, a retired U.S. Air Force brigadier general, said Social Security won't be a concern if young people start saving early: "You'll go out and get a job and get a car," Smith said. "But don't spend your paycheck on a car." Instead he said, "If you save $200 a month in a mutual fund from the time you're 20 until you're 28, and then never another dime, you'll have $780,000 for retirement," he said. "But if you wait until you're 28 and save $200 a month until you're 65, you'll have $100,000 less." And like the parent of four that he is, Smith's practical guidance included pushing careers in science, technology, engineering and math.  

Meanwhile, panelist Deirdre McCloskey, who teaches economics, history, English, and communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago, mocked Smith's counsel and all the doomsday talk.

"You will have the prosperity of your parents - and you can screw it up, too, my dears," McCloskey said. "If you work hard at school and your job, you will do OK."  

McCloskey said there is too much emphasis on the importance of getting a job. It's more important, she said, to spend time discovering one's passion. Most people in the world live on $3 a day, she said. "The average American makes and consumes $130 a day," McCloskey said. "Go forth and find your way. The economy's not going to stop you."

A Boulder High junior, who identified herself as Norah, asked McCloskey: "You tell us, 'Don't worry,' but what if we don't have an option to go to college anymore? What do you suggest we do?" Norah explained that many teens have greatly diminished college funds as a result of the crippled stock market.

"Don't you think there will be an entire generation of kids who never went to college, that there will be all this wasted potential?" Norah said.

McCloskey said, no, she doesn't believe that will happen. Rates of college admissions are up, McCloskey said. She advised students to try community college if university tuition is out of range - and said the recession won't last forever. Education is a lifelong endeavor, after all, she said.

"Don't worry," McCloskey said. "You are not part of a lost generation. I'm giving you my money back guarantee."

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Mary Butler is ColoradoBiz's online editor.

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Readers Respond

Bridget, i thought this was interesting. read the line about saving $200/month while you're still young. By Bridget on 2009 04 08

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