On August 31st the New York Times published on article about my generation’s job woes. And reading it – not only did I feel like I was staring into a mirror, I felt relieved and vindicated.
Meet the members of what might be called Generation Limbo: highly educated 20-somethings, whose careers are stuck in neutral, coping with dead-end jobs and listless prospects.
I’m so sick of the term “boomerang generation,” because (although I feel that the amount of entitlement in my peers is unprecedented and drives me bonkers), for the most part the reason we have to move back home is because we can’t get work. And why can’t we get work? There are two reasons: less jobs and the boomers lost their retirment and can’t leave the work world, which means other workers can’t promote and the entry or smidge-higher-than-entry level jobs aren’t being vacated to make room for the recent college grads.
I graduated from undergrad in the winter of 2006, and it took me months to find an assistant admin position while I waited to get into grad school. Even though I did get a job, the time it took me to find one shocked me. I had been sold the “College gives you a step up!” propaganda. And there I was struggling to find work that, really, a robot could do. I didn’t need a degree to sit at a desk all day and then re-organize the storage room. And this was all before the recession really hit. By the time I got out of grad school in the fall of 2009, I was fucked. Regardless of my two degrees, regardless of my internships, my steady employment, my literary journal staff membership, the publishing industry was a mess, and the country was flooded with over educated, under paid people in their 20s.
Amy Klein, who graduated from Harvard in 2007 with a degree in English literature, couldn’t find a job in publishing. At one point, she had applied for an editorial-assistant job at Gourmet magazine. Less than two weeks later, Condé Nast shut down that 68- year-old magazine. “So much for that job application,” said Ms. Klein, now 26.
“We did everything we were supposed to,” said Stephanie Morales, 23, who graduated from Dartmouth College in 2009 with hopes of working in the arts. Instead she ended up waiting tables at a Chart House restaurant in Weehawken, N.J., earning $2.17 an hour plus tips, to pay off her student loans. “What was the point of working so hard for 22 years if there was nothing out there?” said Ms. Morales, who is now a paralegal and plans on attending law school.
Some of Ms. Morales’s classmates have found themselves on welfare. “You don’t expect someone who just spent four years in Ivy League schools to be on food stamps,” said Ms. Morales, who estimates that a half-dozen of her friends are on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. A few are even helping younger graduates figure out how to apply. “We are passing on these traditions on how to work in the adult world as working poor,” Ms. Morales said.
After graduate school I moved back to Seattle and got a job working at a bakery because I couldn’t stomach working for another office job that didn’t mean anything. I had done that since 2006 and all through grad school. I wanted to have a more physical job that left me time to write in the 1 bedroom apartment I shared with Claire. I originally wanted to work in a bar because I never had and I thought it would be fascinating, but everyone who couldn’t get jobs in the daylight work world fell back on their old bartending ways, so even those jobs were impossible to find without massive experience. What ended up happening was: Poverty. I could pay rent and my bills, but pretty much nothing else. And writing? Forget it. I was exhausted from being on my feet 9 hours most days. And my days off were spent running errands, doing chores, and trying to have a social life on no cash. I couldn’t focus on writing when I was worrying about how to buy groceries for the next week, on top of buying Christmas presents.
When I moved back to San Francisco I thought things would be different. There were so many more help wanted signs hanging in the industry windows that I was qualified for. And so, so many more qualified artist-types, over educated and all vying for those entry level jobs just to give them some sort of leg up, something to build on, some morsel that says, “all those loans and all that time is worth something.”
But the struggle isn’t all bad. It puts life in perspective and has given me the chance to figure out just what kind of lifestyle I want, where I want my priorities to land.
After all, much of the situation is out of their control, as victims of bad timing. Ms. Klein contrasted her Harvard classmates with the ones of her older sister, who graduated from Harvard seven years earlier. Those graduates, she said, were career-obsessed and, helped along by a strong economy, aggressively pursued high-powered jobs right after graduation.
By comparison, Ms. Klein said her classmates seemed resigned to waiting for the economic tides to turn. “Plenty of people work in bookstores and work in low-end administrative jobs, even though they have a Harvard degree,” she said. “They are thinking more in terms of creating their own kinds of life that interests them, rather than following a conventional idea of success and job security.”
Kamel and I talk all of the time about what would happen if we had money and then lost it. We want to focus on not being super attached to things. Living in a small apartment has made us really good at organizing our life (we have 1 closet… 1 in the entire place) and knowing what we HAVE to have and what we really don’t. Having kids and time to spend with them is more important to us than a job that demands a ton from us and pays us tons. Shopping at Target instead of anthropologie so that we can travel and make memories is an easy choice to make. And when we do get opportunities to further our careers, when I get the chance to quit my temp job and race for the seemingly impossible crack in the closed career door, we sacrifice to support each other.
The numbers are not encouraging. About 14 percent of those who graduated from college between 2006 and 2010 are looking for full-time jobs, either because they are unemployed or have only part-time jobs, according to a survey of 571 recent college graduates released in May by the Heldrich Center at Rutgers.
“They are a postponed generation,” said Cliff Zukin, an author of the Heldrich Center study. He noted that recent graduates seemed to be living with parents longer and taking longer to become financially secure. The journey on the life path, for many, is essentially stalled.
So we wait, and we watch, and we scramble for every opportunity we can sniff out. And I think that makes us better workers, I think in the end it means we’ll know what it really feels like to work our way up, to value the careers we’ve had to be patient for. And hopefully, we’ll treat those in food service, those working with the public, and those at the front desk with respect, because we’ve been there and done that and we know how much it can suck.