Young people are the workforce of today, not tomorrow

Rather than continuing to underemploy young workers, congregations and organizations must invest in nurturing their careers and advocating for living wages.

The number of my friends who are underemployed is devastating.

They have degrees -- often multiple, sometimes in the so-called promised land of the STEM fields. They have administrative, program management and technological skills.

And yet some work 40, 50, even 60 hours a week for little pay, few benefits and zero job security. They stay with their corporations and organizations until they are downsized, the contract ends, or something that is slightly more secure or better paying comes along.

They struggle as entrepreneurs, part-time pastors of start-up churches, unemployed scholars, artists, and community activists. Before the Affordable Care Act, few had health insurance. For those with jobs in established companies, their actual work is often rote, demeaning, driven by bottom lines and classified as entry-level, giving them no opportunity for future growth.

Since 2009, the number of underemployed (those settling for part-time work in place of full-time work) has increased dramatically. This affects younger workers more than any other.

While anecdotal, my observation is that my peers who graduated from college and entered the workforce after the 2008 financial crisis have lower paying jobs and have changed jobs more frequently than my older peers who established themselves professionally prior to the crisis. It turns out that those three to five years of experience that they acquired when jobs were easier to find and keep have given them ongoing job security.

Those without the experience are left without. They are entering their late twenties and still struggling to get out of entry-level work. You don’t just have to have a job to get a job; you have to have the right kind of job to get a better job.

Being a young person in the workforce is anxiety-ridden and depressing -- and it is happening in our churches.

Churches often look for part-time employees to “fill” the gaps left by a retiring minister or to grow the youth group of a dying congregation. They place high expectation on 10-20 hours a week, but do little to nurture the worker’s professional and vocational future.

A colleague once described this activity as a kind of “fourth source of funding.” The first source comes from tithing; the second and third sources are income and fundraising; the fourth source is balancing a budget by reducing or freezing the salaries and benefits of the employees. The employees are left with the bill: struggling to pay off student loan debt, unable to save or contribute financially to their communities and families, and barely making ends meet.

Young people aren’t the workforce and the church of tomorrow -- they are the workforce and the church of today.

Balancing our corporate and church budgets on the backs of young people demeans their professional integrity and their ability to succeed over the long haul. We do not do a young person a favor by offering a short-term contract without benefits. We insult their professional skills and communicate that they are only worth their ability to produce on command and that we do not wish for them to have any sort of lasting impact on our organization or congregation.

What would it mean to prioritize providing living wages and benefits to our staff over other costs in the church budget?? What would it mean to invite a young person into the ranks of organizational leadership? What would it mean to put some of our own privilege (be it our earning capacity, our opportunity for growth and networking, or our own authority) at risk in order to invest in the development of young people? What would it mean for older workers and those privileged with secure employment to nurture young leaders? How might church leaders connect young members with older members for intentional career mentoring and professional development? How might the church advocate for living wages for the underemployed in our communities?