LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
Call them Gen Wrong Place Wrong Time. This generation of young people faces extraordinary economic challenges, with unemployment and college costs both sky high. Here's an example: the small town of East Millinocket, Maine. For more than a century, the paper mill there provided good-paying, middle-class jobs. Now, as the paper industry has declined, young people are scrambling to find a new path.
As part of our series "Hard Times: A Journey Across America," NPR's Tovia Smith has this report.
TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Try to ask young folks in East Millinocket how they feel about their economic future here, and you pretty much have your answer before you even start.
QUENTEN CLARK: There aren't a lot of 22-year-olds in the area. They're gone, OK?
SMITH: School superintendent Quenten Clark has seen it both personally and professionally. As young adults left town for college and jobs, classes that used to be 100 or 200 kids have shrunk down to 20 or 30. Clark's own kids left to start their careers in Beijing and Africa - a completely foreign idea when Clark was a kid.
CLARK: It used to be that opportunity was quarter of a mile away, at the bottom of the hill.
(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)
SMITH: The paper mill in East Millinocket used to be where kids would, literally, run the day they graduated high school. Generations grew up guaranteed a good job at a good wage, for life. Four thousand once worked here. None could have imagined the reality today - just 200 or so workers, and four times as many applicants turned away.
JARED LYONS: It's a little scary, 'cause it's going to be tough.
SMITH: As an honor student and captain of the soccer team, Jared Lyons is the kind of high school senior who should be feeling downright cocky about his future. But having watched his father lose his mill job and the economy crumble, he worries now about how he'll afford college, and achieve his dream to become a doctor.
JARED LYONS: I mean, it really can't get worse than it is now in this recession we're in, so...
MATT MORRIS: The whole economy - in whole, is just - it sucks, for lack of a better term.
SMITH: That's Matt Morris, a junior who's also looking to make a career in the medical field.
MORRIS: We're going to have to work very hard, but a lot of it's not even in our hands, either.
SMITH: That can be the hardest part for kids who've always been told if they just study hard and get good grades, they can do whatever they want. Instead, students like these, who've done everything right, have a hard time finding even an after-school job for minimum wage.
In the heart of East Millinocket, the pharmacy is empty at noontime, and there's little else around besides two bars and a gas station. Not much opportunity for a kid looking for work, like 17-year-old Crystal Rodrigues. She didn't want to talk about it herself but her dad, Duane Rodrigues, says Crystal's job search has been almost unbearable.
DUANE RODRIGUES: Seems really depressed by it, you know; she's really down. I think she feels like no hope, and she just stays in her room all day. And then sometimes, she'll - and then she'll have more hope again and she'll go, I'm going to go out today, and I'm going to go look again.
SMITH: But with unemployment around 17 percent around here, competition is fierce even in surrounding towns, as 17-year-old Tayla Federico found out.
TAYLA FEDERICO: I tried McDonald's and grocery stores and stuff.
SMITH: Did you get a call back?
TAYLA FEDERICO: No, not yet. But they already have people working there - like, old people.
NANCY MCKEKNIE: You know, a lot of these kids are competing now in the workplace, you know, with people who have 25 years' experience, who are not too good to be working for 7.50 an hour behind the fryolator. And so that adds a whole other layer to their challenges.
SMITH: That's Nancy McKeknie, youth manager for the Eastern Maine Development Corporation, a nonprofit that offers job training, career counseling, and classes in everything from computers to anatomy.
LARRY LANKHURST: Look at me. What's my belly button compared to my chin?
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: Inferior.
LANKHURST: Inferior. It's on the trunk.
SMITH: Instructor Larry Lankhurst goes through a drill on medical terminology to a class filled with as many 40- and 50-year-olds as 20-somethings.
LANKHURST: What is my elbow compared to my wrist? Do you use superior and inferior?
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: No.
LANKHURST: No, because on the appendages, you're going to use proximal, distal.
SMITH: Medical classes draw some of the most ambitious, like 18-year-old Elizabeth Haven, who's hoping to become a nurse.
ELIZABETH HAVEN: Odds are stacked against us younger kids. But they'll always need nurses and doctors, and you'll be set for life if you go in the medical field. I should be fine.
SMITH: Administrators describe Haven as one of the most driven kids they've ever met. She undoubtedly will be fine, they say. It's the less motivated kids they worry about. Gone are the good old days when everyone could count on a mill job - valedictorian or not. But high school principal John Farrington says some in town have yet to adapt.
JOHN FARRINGTON: I wonder all the time what is going to become of these young men and young women if they don't get their act together in a hurry. And how do we light a fire under these kids? It's a tough thing to do.
JOYCE SANTERRE: All right. So part of the assessment that we did, you did very well with the reading, and the math was a little bit on the low side. So we need to get you focused on that.
TAYLA FEDERICO: I told you I was bad at math.
SMITH: Tayla Federico huddles with career adviser Joyce Santerre, who's helping her get her GED and then, she hopes, some kind of job in health care.
SANTERRE: The career exploration software, and that's going to help to establish what you would like to do in the medical field. I did...
SMITH: That help is especially important to children of mill workers who never experienced the whole what-do-I-want-to-do-when-I-grow-up thing, like Tayla's mother, Toni Federico.
TONI FEDERICO: Yeah, you need somebody to guide you, you know? I mean, I wasn't the only parent looking for, you know, where to start, and it was like, oh, thank God I found somebody that can send me in the right direction, you know, and get my child on the right path, so...
KIM LYONS: Jared, are you ready to go to form(ph) now?
JARED LYONS: Yeah.
KIM LYONS: OK. You want to stop and get gas so that you...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
JARED LYONS: I'll get it on the way back.
KIM LYONS: OK.
SMITH: At home after school, Kim Lyons' son Jared has got that part figured out. He knows his path to become a doctor will be much longer than his father's short walk down to the mill. But it's worth it, Jared says, if that's what it takes to make sure he doesn't find himself, 20 years from now, out of work - like his father, and so many others.
JARED LYONS: I wouldn't trade it. I'd rather be in this situation and be more prepared. You'll be tougher if you get through it.
KIM LYONS: Yeah, I mean, that's your dream. You want him to go farther than we did.
BOB LYONS: Yeah. You want him to do better.
KIM LYONS: Like, you know, shoot for the moon, but hope you land among the stars. At least you've gone somewhere.
SMITH: The sad part is that somewhere will most likely not be East Millinocket, Maine. For Jared, achieving that American dream of prosperity, and doing better than his parents, will almost surely mean leaving the place where his entire family has lived and prospered for generations.
Tovia Smith, NPR News.
WERTHEIMER: You can follow our month-long series on Twitter @NPRHardTimes, and at our website, NPR.org.