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The Lost Generation: What it's like for 20-somethings to go in search of meaningful work—and not find it.
Since January, for 35 hours a week, at a rate of $10 an hour, Luke Stacks has been working for a home-electronics chain. He answers the phone and attempts to coax callers into buying more stuff. This is not how he imagined he would be spending his late 20s.
Like a lot of us, Stacks was given a fairly straightforward version of how his life would unfold: He would go to college and study something he found interesting, graduate, and get a decent job. For a while, things went pretty much according to plan. Stacks, who now is 27, went to the University of Virginia, not far from where he grew up, majoring in American Studies. He later enrolled in a Ph.D. program at the University of Iowa, with the eventual goal of becoming a professor.
Flash forward to the fall of 2008, when the stock market crashed. There were never enough jobs for newly minted Ph.D.s to begin with, and now the likelihood of landing a tenure-track teaching position in the humanities was slim. Academia stopped looking like such a sure bet and Stacks grew disenchanted with his program. Even if he were to finish his doctorate, he reasoned, a job was in no way guaranteed to follow. He wondered, “How bad could it really be out there?” Turns out, it’s pretty bad.
So, in May of 2009, equipped with a master’s degree and a decent amount of courage, Stacks changed course. Shortly after graduation, he moved back in with his mother, who lives in Chantilly, Virginia. And from a desk in his bedroom, still littered with childhood toys and posters, Stacks started over.
What confronted him was not exactly pleasant. What once thrilled him—curating museum exhibits, making comic books, being a curious person—now seemed to make little financial sense. “I’m not confident that schooling has a direct connection with employment anymore,” he says. “But if I hadn’t received the kind of education I did, I would be less of an active citizen and less engaged in the world in ways I would not have discovered on my own.” And while passion and intellectual curiosity can’t be measured in dollars and cents, he expected they might at least secure a paycheck.
The unemployment rate among workers with at least a college degree is the highest it has been since the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking such data, in 1970.
As time passed, Stacks’s confidence flagged. “It’s the hardest thing in the world to write another cover letter about your great accomplishments if you question every day the greatness of your accomplishments,” he says.
Stacks is hardly alone. There are roughly 2 million Americans over 25 who have at least a bachelor’s degree and are unemployed. Nationwide, the jobless rate for college graduates in that category is double what it was before the recession. In fact, the unemployment rate among workers with at least a college degree is the highest it has been since the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking such data, in 1970.
And yet it’s still very much the case that those with more education have a lower rate of unemployment. According to the most recent data available, for those 25 years and older who didn’t finish high school, the unemployment rate is 14 percent. For those with only a high school diploma but not a college degree, it drops to 10.3 percent. For those with some college or a two-year degree, it falls to 8.7 percent.
Still, for Stacks and many others of his generation, the old “go to school, get a job” mantra sounds hollow. Fifty years ago, 77 percent of women and 65 percent of men had attained traditional markers of maturity by their thirtieth birthday: They had left home, finished school, gotten a job, married, and started a family. By 2005, those numbers had almost halved. Now, a new crop of 20-somethings is experiencing what it’s like to be young and ambitious and unable to find work, or work that in any way aligns with what they’re passionate about. As a recent New York Times Magazine story made clear, early adulthood has become one long pause, affecting not only short-term, conventional milestones of coming of age, but longer-term stuff, too—things like the hopes and dreams and basic constitution of a person.
Of those who continue to slog through, many can’t help but wonder how long this indefinite pause can possibly last.
Few people right out of college expect that their first job will be the ideal one. Neither did Stacks. But he also didn’t expect that he would be the only person in his entire company to crack open a book during their 30-minute lunch break.
Andrew Sum, an economics professor at Northeastern University, where he directs the Center for Labor Market Studies, has discovered that many college graduates are falling back on jobs that don’t require a college degree: waiting tables, bartending, working in retail. Using federal labor statistics, Sum has found that of the more than 2 million college graduates under the age of 25, about 700,000 have a job that doesn’t require a degree. And while unemployment and the lack of full-time jobs are problems, Sum says that having a job for which one is overqualified is worse. People with a job that does not require a degree—even if they have one—earn up to 40 percent less than college graduates whose jobs require their schooling. What’s worse, the longer one spends in a non-degree job, the less likely one is to ever join the college-educated labor force.
And the economic effects aren’t temporary. Lisa Kahn, an economist at Yale’s School of Management, tracked the wages of white men who graduated from college before, during, and after the 1980s recession. Over a 20-year period, those who graduated in the peak of the recession earned $100,000 less than those who finished college before or after the economic downturn.
"What I miss most is feeling productive, that I’m a part of something larger than myself. It’s really hard not to have that."
“Young college graduates are vastly underutilized. They go ahead and complete school and we don’t have anything to offer them once they’re out,” says Sum, referring to the young college graduates who are without work. In the more than 20 years that he’s been studying the issue, Sum says that the current downturn has negatively affected young people the most—and not just in terms of their take-home pay. For some people, the recession has forever altered perceptions of how the world works, creating the impression that success has more to do with luck than with hard work.
For Stacks in particular, the most severe toll hasn’t been a loss of income, but feelings of estrangement and isolation. It’s fair to say that Stacks doesn’t exactly have a lot in common with his coworkers. Many are still in high school. Most of the older ones haven’t gone to college. In general, Stacks veers away from conversations about his education or the number of degrees he has acquired, worried that they’ll think less of him because of it—or worse, think that he thinks he’s better than they are.
Despite his best efforts, the details of his past life have slowly seeped out. “People kept asking me, ‘If you have a master’s degree and you went to UVA, why are you here? Shouldn’t you be somewhere else? Shouldn’t you be more successful than you are?’” The answers don’t come easily. “My younger coworkers want my advice but they think my advice probably isn’t worth that much since we ended up in the exact same place and they don’t have a college education, let alone a master’s.”
So if college doesn’t guarantee a path toward upward mobility, is it even necessary? And what about if you already have a job: Is it better to just stay put, forgo a raise, and simply hope that things eventually get better?
Some recent graduates aren’t yet ready to settle for a version of life that is less than what they had imagined. When looking for work, the line that Kristen Vockel draws is this: Could she have done it before graduating from college, like the jobs she worked during summers while she was in school—at a call center, a movie theater, a dollar store? Vockel, now 22, moved back home to Florence, New Jersey, after graduating from New York University in May. She still lives off $3,000 she received as a graduation gift, hoping it can tide her over until she finds something she feels qualified to do. “Overqualified, underqualified—I’m never the right amount qualified,” says Vockel, describing the sentiment that she and many of her classmates share. Recently, she took on an unpaid internship that she can do from home, promoting a new online talk show, in hopes of padding her resume. Meanwhile the search continues, with Vockel more than willing to settle for something “really low-level,” if only she could find it.
“It was nice to have a break at first, but at this point I’m bored,” says Vockel, who goes to bed late and wakes up even later. “The glamour of being able to do whatever you want wears off pretty quickly.” To say nothing of the financial burden she’s facing. With $30,000 in student-loan debt, $1,200 to pay off on her credit card, not to mention the burden of putting pressure on her already financially strained single mother, Vockel is slowly changing the way she thinks about the future. With loan payments due in December, she has thought about bartending a few nights a week to make some extra money. She echoes the sentiments of Stacks and others: “Why did I bother taking all of those tests and writing all of those papers and working so hard all of those years if I just have to go back to working the same jobs I worked before?”
Loan debt is also a concern for Rachel Lieberman, 30, whose six-figure loan repayment for her joint master’s degrees in public health and business from the University of Michigan goes into repayment later this fall. After graduating in the spring, Lieberman spent a lot of time on her couch watching movies, recovering from two intense years of business school. The sudden abundance of free time was unsettling. “I’m someone who needs structure, who does better when I’m super busy than when I have nothing on my plate,” says Lieberman, who pays her rent by working part-time at 826 Michigan, a national nonprofit that helps students develop writing skills. If it weren’t for the 15 hours a week of work, she imagines she would resort to making jewelry and selling it on Etsy. For now, a combination of frugality and money saved from last summer’s paid internship helps make up the difference.
The emotional pressures are as difficult as the financial ones. “When the response is negative, it’s hard to constantly put yourself out there,” says Lieberman, who, after graduating from Grinnell College worked as a Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya. “What I miss most is feeling productive, that I’m a part of something larger than myself. It’s really hard not to have that.” What she also hates is waking up in the middle of the night, her heart pounding with anxiety.
Most days, Stacks leaves work and comes home to the upper-class neighborhood where he lives, feeling beaten down. While not all parts of his underemployment have been bad—Stacks has had time to read contemporary novels again, wade his way through the entire Criterion Collection of films, and has grown closer to his mother since moving back home—it isn’t easy for him to shake the sense that life as he’s living it won’t last forever. With his personal life on hold, not wanting to start a new relationship while living in his mother’s house, he tweaks his resume, writes cover letters with astonishing speed, and waits.
Despite all of the stories that Stacks reads that say he is hardly alone in his battle for meaningful employment, nearly all of his friends have jobs. Some are really successful. “It makes talking about it and hanging out with them, marveling at the size of their televisions and spacious kitchens, really difficult,” he says.
Last fall, a friend invited Stacks to a Halloween party where there would be a lot of people he didn’t know. After wavering on what sort of costume he should wear, he ended up not going. “I honestly had no idea to how to explain to people who I was and what I did,” says Stacks. “And maybe I still don’t.”
Illustrations by Graham Roumieu.