Young, Educated, and Unemployed: A New Generation of Kids Search for Work in their 20s Young, Educated, and Unemployed: A New Generation of Kids Search for Work in their 20s

Young, Educated, and Unemployed: A New Generation of Kids Search for Work in their 20s

by Amanda M. Fairbanks

October 13, 2010



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. 

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."

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. 

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.

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Young, Educated, and Unemployed: A New Generation of Kids Search for Work in their 20s