If you grew up in the middle class, says Nona Willis Aronowitz at Good, you likely heard this "cautionary tale: 'You don't want to end up flipping burgers all your life.'" And if your parents spared you that line, you may recall the recent story of a banker — an unapologetic 1 percenter — who told his waitress to "get a real job." These notions — or prejudices — about the service industry are familiar. What's new is the reality facing a younger generation of workers: It's tougher than ever to find an office job, and desperate members of Generation Y are turning to restaurants and bars to make a living. Here, a guide to their challenges:
How has the recession affected younger workers?
It's not pretty. Nearly 14 percent of adults between the ages of 20 and 24 are unemployed, compared with 8.3 percent for the general population. Entry level wages for males with college degrees have fallen 11 percent since 2001, and 7.6 percent for women. Simply put, salaries for young workers "fell off a cliff during the Great Recession," says Eve Tahmincioglu at MSNBC.
How many young workers are in food service?
Nearly a quarter of workers between the ages of 16 and 29 are employed by the "hospitality" industry, which includes food service, says Aronowitz. "The restaurant industry in particular is booming." About two-thirds of food-service workers are younger than 35, while the "industry's workforce is more educated than it was just 10 years ago." Today, in big American cities, "about 9 percent more food-service workers have been to college" than a decade ago.
What does it portend for their future?
"Food and retail jobs usually don't pay a living wage," says Aronowitz. And that could have a huge impact on Generation Y. With many struggling under mountains of college debt, more have taken to living with their parents, and "postponing buying a home, having children, even getting married," says Bob Sullivan at MSNBC. Furthermore, studies show that if you earn a lower salary as a young adult, you're more likely to earn less money over your entire career. "When you spend years languishing in a job that doesn't pay much or offer much room for advancement, you may never be able to catch up," say Scott Bittle and Jean Johnson at The Huffington Post.
Can the food-service industry change?
The problem is that we've "internalized the message that service jobs aren't 'real' jobs," argues Aronowitz. Instead of treating these jobs as "temporary," workers should unionize to make the profession "stable, full time, and decently paid." The U.S. has to "start taking food service seriously as an industry and major element of the labor market," says Matthew Yglesias at Slate. With the growth of online commerce, "more and more of our commercial space will be dedicated" to service industries.