Breaking the Trend: the Future of the Scarred Generation

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 This blog originally posted on the Community & Regional Resilience Institute 

 In my last post, I talked about the “Scarred Generation” – the younger generation that should be approaching its peak earnings at about the same time that the Post-World War II Baby Boomers reach their population peak. I noted that the membership of the Scarred Generation was heavily tilted toward men, esp. African-American men. I also pointed out that this constituted a crisis, with both great danger and great opportunity. In this post, I’ll start by looking at how dangerous the crisis might be if not addressed, then the opportunity for our country if we do address it, and finally a few thoughts about how to do so.

In the following, I focus on the potential fate of young black males because they make up so large a part of the Scarred Generation. As I mentioned in my last post, about 22% of black males ages 20-24 are unemployed. Without intervention, their future is bleak. Since about 40% of all black males have no reported earnings, even those 20-24 year olds currently in the workforce but unemployed are likely to eventually become discouraged and stop looking for work. If not working, they will become another drag on our debt-ridden states and nation.

And this will have disturbing consequences. As Marjorie Valbrun writes in America’s Wire,

“Without solid incomes and steady jobs, young black men’s chances for economic advancement are severely diminished, as is their ability to marry and help to support families, secure credit to buy homes or start businesses.They are also unlikely to become influential business leaders with a say in economic development of their communities.”

And, of course, what she doesn’t say is that many of these will be housed in our overcrowded prisons.

In addition, there are significant disparities in employment between black and white males. The figure below shows the predicted employability of black males as a function of their education. The figure is clear – unskilled black males are at a severe disadvantage compared to their white counterparts. The only good news is that the disparity becomes much less significant at the highest level of educational attainment.


The decreasing number of black males enrolled in college and the continuing decline in their graduation rates potentially will exacerbate both the potential economic and social problems. The figure below from the Department of Education shows that the proportion of degrees earned by all men is declining compared to those earned by women. When we consider that black males are 8 percent of the population but only 3 percent of those in college, and that their graduation rate is only about half that of the rest of the college population, the future doesn’t look bright. The trend in enrollments makes it likely that it will get worse if we don’t take action (Note that while this 2009 projection indicated that degrees granted to men would not decline below 40% until later this decade, we’ve already attained this dubious distinction.)


Thus, if we don’t take action, we’ll have fewer black fathers raising their children to become responsible adults; fewer black businessmen pushing themselves, their neighborhoods and their communities toward prosperity. Communities in crisis will have to cope with a larger entrenched under class barely connected to the rest of the community.

So, what’s the opportunity? If we could lift young black men so that they merely make as much as their peers, this would inject at least $300 billion into our nation’s economy. If we could lift them to the average income level in this country, it would be a $400+ billion boost. And it would pay an extra dividend: our current spending on social services, prisons and so many other things would decrease so that we could better endure Global Graying.

The first figure provides a clue for how to address this problem: get young blacks – and the other members of the Scarred Generation – the education they need to compete in today’s economy. We know that there are millions of job openings out there that are going unfilled. It is almost certain that if we can fill those openings, the economy will grow. But those jobs require technical skills that many black males simply don’t have.

Many of you are now snorting derisively and say, “It can’t be done, Pollyanna.” Well, it can be done, if we try. When I was a boy (yeah, back in the Dark Ages before color TV), my family took the old Philadelphia Bulletin. I have never forgotten one of the stories I read there. A teacher had been fired in downtown Philadelphia who was remarkably successful in educating young men that others had given up on. These were tough kids in a tough town (remember that they even booed Santa Claus one year) – as hard to reach as any today. And yet he was successful because he reached them on their level – and was fired for it. Instead of forcing The Scarlet Letter on them, he gave them pornographic books to read. Instead of giving them rote lessons in basic arithmetic, he had them work problems based on The Racing Form. His students managed to increase their reading comprehension and their math skills by several grade levels. And he was fired by the educational bureaucracy for his apostasy.

Obviously, I’m not advocating pornography or The Racing Form as standard instructional materials. But what we’re seeing in glimmers across America are programs that actually help the disadvantaged become excited about learning. These programs all seem to have a few things in common:

  • They don’t look at students as statistics but as individuals. They recognize that barriers to learning differ depending on the child’s gender, age and family circumstances.
  • They stress student accountability. This leads to greater self-respect and means that students play an active role in overcoming their challenges.
  • They are results-oriented. Bureaucratic processes are minimized if not eliminated; if a change in direction is needed for a particular student, then it is quickly made.
  • Perhaps most importantly, the teachers both care and are able to act on their caring unlike that unnamed educational hero from long ago. When you talk to these teachers they are genuinely excited and energized by both the challenge and their success.

Interesting to me is that the success that these programs are having echo some of the latest findings being made at the boundaries of biology and psychology. Scientists are finding that our DNA predisposes each of us to certain specific methods of gaining knowledge. So, just as we’re beginning to see the benefits of individualized medicine on our physical health, these programs point to the potential benefits of individualized instruction in terms of gaining knowledge.

If we can save the Scarred Generation it will mean much for our future resilience (think of the growth opportunities for our economy if we have a new $400 B market!). But it will only be done if we can overcome our cynical Zeitgeist. That means ignoring those who say it can’t be done and beginning to do it.

This is the last in my “Trends” series but let me provide a few more nuggets before I go.

  • In the U.S., poverty is moving from the center cities to the suburbs. These bedroom communities are often not equipped to provide social services to the poor.
  • As pointed out in Coming Apart, there is a significant loss of trust in our institutions in many lower class neighborhoods. Might this explain, in part, the furor in Ferguson?
  • Again, as originally pointed out in Coming Apart, a gulf seems to be opening between the Educated and the Not – the Not educated, Not connected, Not married and Not working. And as I’ve implied in the post above, men make up a larger (and increasing) portion of the Not.
  • On the other hand, in the last quarter century, the proportion of undernourished people in the world has fallen from 23 percent to <15 percent. In the last DECADE, two BILLION people gained access to clean drinking water. The U.S. Council on Environmental Quality points out that we have seen steady IMPROVEMENT in our environment since the founding of the EPA.
  • In spite of increasing CO2 in the atmosphere, the world’s temperature has been stable over the last 17 years.
  • In spite of claims to the contrary, the annual number of natural disasters is if anything slightly less than it was 40 years ago (and much less than the ‘30s and ‘50s). Their severity in terms of energy expended and number of deaths is much less. Their costs are much greater because of people’s poor decisions about where to build.
  • And finally, recent research indicates that organizational topology – how organizations are connected – determines both efficiency (no surprise) and also how gracefully their performance degrades under stress. Kathleen Tierney for one has seen something similar in terms of emergency management organizations.

I’m going to start a new series of posts in the next week or two. Too much of what I’m reading about resilience (especially the research) is focused on the ontological, Being Resilient; and too little on the phenomenological, Becoming Resilient. I’m going to explore that, starting with a series of essays on communities becoming better “learners.”


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