What do we do with an “unneeded generation?”

Our economy faces a growing problem with the younger generation – we simply don’t need them. Even jobs for graduating seniors from college are drying up, let alone jobs those who didn’t go to college.  I think this is not a temporary situation that can be solved by a President or congress—I think it is “the new normal” for most of the next decade. 

As for manufacturing jobs—they’re never coming back.  Its not just china’s low wages. American manufacturing has simply become so efficient it doesn’t need workers, as any program of the science channel’s “How its made” illustrates. These companies are not going to fire their robots an replace them with young employees who need health care.  The mortgage and banking crisis gave companies an excuse to lay off excess workers they really didn’t need anyway. And they slowed down new hiring, as they became more efficient even in  non-manufacturing work too—when is the last time you used a bank teller, or dictated a letter for a “secretary” to type?

It has happened in the church too. Jobs are out there but they are fewer and the competition is more fierce. Many churches have followed the lead of business. They have become more efficient. They have eliminated some jobs altogether, recruiting lay volunteers to do what they used to hire a staff minister to do. Others have hired their own laity as part or full time staffers–often laity who sensed a call when they became unemployed themselves. Other churches have chosen not to replace staffers who left the church determining “we didn’t really need that ministry anyway, after all we don’t get much back from it” (this is especially true for young adult ministers). It isn’t because the church can’t afford it—church giving is not down in most cases—it is because of the general climate of belt-tightening and economic fear. Churches don’t want to hire somebody then turn around and have to lay them off six months later. The result has been we now have a whole “unneeded generation.”

This tightening job market for ministerial students has beer exacerbated by boomers reaching retirement age who feel they can’t retire. Some boomers simply didn’t save enough for retirement. But even those who did are fearful that their economic future is tentative due to talk about potential cuts in Social Security and Medicare. They did their pencil work and could retire now, but who knows what they’ll lose in the future when “everything comes tumbling down.” So many healthy boomers are quietly deciding to stay on “until they’re 70 or more” when they hope things will stabilize. Usually the retiring generation makes space for the middle aged ministers who move up into the vacated jobs which then makes space for the younger generation. This process will be clogged at the top in the coming decade due to economics.

All this brings us new challenge in the church, and for people like me who work with this largely unneeded generation.  Sure, some graduates still get full time jobs, but the demand of jobs is smaller than the supply of seniors.  I wrote last spring about the resulting “sale on Seniors”  and how “the unneeded generation” is coping with this. They are biding their time figuring the “clog at the top” will eventually unclog in a decade or so. What’s a graduating senior ministerial student  supposed to do when they are mostly unneeded? What would YOU tell these seniors this coming spring?

Here’s what I say:  Take an internship or go to seminary so you’re better prepared to compete when the jobs do come back in a decade. Work part time in a church and the rest of the time at Starbucks and pay off your debt in eight years so you’ll be debt-free and 30 years old when you land your first full time ministry job. Go overseas for a few years on the cheap and get some global ministry experience. Plant a church on your own—don’t expect any financial help but figure out how to start a church small and cheap and reinvent the small church again. And as a last resort, I even sometimes recommend moving back in with mom and dad.

So, what do you think?  What are the unintended consequences of having an unneeded generation? What might actually be good about this situation?  Bad? How does it feel to be an unneeded? If we in the church don’t need this generation for jobs, what else do we need them for? Certainly we don’t want to simply tell them they are completely unneeded? 

That’s what I’m thinking about this week.
So, what do you think?
The discussion of this column is on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/home.php?#!/profile.php?id=161502633
Keith Drury October 25, 2011

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