I am a lost soul caught up in the doldrums of the economic recession.
Like so many other young Americans, I find myself overeducated, underemployed, and living with my parents. It’s not a status of which I’m particularly proud, but I see no reason to be clandestine about it.
The fact that I am not alone in facing these challenges is cold comfort. In 2012, according to the Pew Research Center, 36% of “Millennials” (adults aged 18-31) lived at home with their parents, the highest share in nearly 40 years. Between one-third and a half were college students or college graduates. The phenomenon is so widespread that this migration of adult children returning home to rebuild in the wake of economic misfortune has earned this generation its very own nickname: The Boomerang Generation.
Although this living arrangement might be tricky at times (I speak from personal experience), it’s preferable to the alternative, especially since full-time work has evaded my grasp for almost two years now. Being able to live with my parents is why I am not standing on a street corner holding up a cardboard sign that says: “Will proofread term papers for food.”
As far as unemployment rates go, Texas is below the national average, (5.7 percent statewide in March compared to 6.7 per cent nationally). However, if you zoom out and isolate the statistics for recent college graduates across the nation, the picture becomes a bit bleaker. The unemployment rate for recent graduates is the highest it’s ever been in 20 years, as is their underemployment rate (defined here as graduates working in jobs that don’t require degrees).
Over the years, job hunting in San Antonio has been a mixed bag for my peer group, but the aforementioned data seems to be an accurate model for what I’ve seen play out within our city. I have a handful of friends who have carved out niches for themselves in a variety of professional fields. Those who worked straight out of college or high school seem to be doing the best.
The ones who continued their education by completing graduate or law degrees have been less fortunate. Many had to take jobs unrelated to their field of study, or they settled for part-time work. Others procured full-time work only after receiving insider tips from acquaintances who had already found jobs locally and had inside information on new openings at their workplace.
Some of my friends had to move out of town to find meaningful employment and begin the task of paying down their sizable student loans.
The growing pressure of student loan debt in the face of inadequate employment is one of the main anxieties troubling individuals of my generation who invested so much time, energy and money earning prestigious degrees.
According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, outstanding college debt nearly tripled from $364 billion in 2004 to $966 billion in 2012. Student loan debt now surpasses auto loan debt and credit card debt, and has contributed to putting millions of American families in financial jeopardy, a situation only exacerbated last summer when Congress allowed the interest rates for federal student loans to double.
There was a time, long ago, when the primary challenge associated with attaining a college education was the actual academic work itself. These days, an even greater challenge is paying for your degree after the mortar board is thrown and Sallie Mae starts knocking on your door.
I remember being a doe-eyed teenager, gawking at how extravagant tuition prices were when the time came to scope out prospective colleges. My family assuaged my fears by telling me all about student loans and scholarship opportunities. They emphasized that investing in one’s education was “the good kind of debt.” A degree enhanced earning power for their generation. In the current economic climate, I don’t know if that advice still holds across the board, especially for all degrees.
Experts still believe, no matter how dire the statistics, that people with college degrees will be able to bounce back more easily than those without credentials once the economy improves more drastically. How long that takes is another story entirely.
It’s true that the economy is getting better. Job creation is slow but steady. Unemployment will drop, but it’s estimated it will take until the end of the decade for the labor market to return to the healthy vigor it once had in the mid-2000s, much less the 1990s. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, but most people aren’t in a position to wait that long.
My previous job did not require a college degree. Ever since I was let go from that position and graduated with my master’s degree, I’ve been trying to apply for openings of comparable skill and rank. I’m now starting to think my new credentials might actually be perceived as a hindrance rather than an asset. After all, why would most employers hire someone whose higher education might serve as leverage for higher pay if the job didn’t require specialized knowledge? Why hire someone better equipped to leave that job for greener pastures?
I’ve tried to diversify my targets and apply for jobs that require advanced degrees, but so many of them ask for a minimum number of years working in specific environments ,like communications offices or public relations offices. I may be a fast learner, but who wants to put the effort into training a newbie when you could hire internally or find someone who has more hours in the field? My work experience is, unfortunately, more limited in scope compared to my academic background. The disparity between the two effectively traps me. I imagine it traps a lot of other people out there too.
One of the suggestions I’ve read online is to actually downplay your strengths: Remove any advanced degrees and prestigious experience from your resume so that you appear better suited to work jobs for which you are technically overqualified. It may be my last, lingering shred of pride talking, but I’ve managed to rationalize not heeding that particular piece of advice just yet.
In addition to committing what amounts to misrepresentation via omission, erasing my academic history from my résumé just feels like a monstrous betrayal of personal identity. Renouncing my life’s work, the few accomplishments I actually have the right to feel good about, is just too depressing for me to seriously consider at this time.
The very notion of having to deny myself like that in order to survive professionally leaves me heaving angry sobs, crying out like John Proctor at the end of The Crucible: “Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life…How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!”
Arthur Miller-inspired dramatics aside, I remain hopeful about my future.
My parting advice to fellow unemployables out there is to reconstruct your vision of what you thought your life was supposed to look like at this stage. Stay in motion. Don’t snub crumbs. Shoot anything that moves and count it as another potential résumé bullet. For the time being, success might have to look unorthodox. It may not take the shape of what our parents knew, like the freelance graphic designer who works at home doing piecemeal projects from her computer. It might not be enough for you to get by without a little help from others. If you’re blessed to have such support in your life, please don’t feel ashamed in taking it. Be gentle with yourself.
Above all else, no matter what anyone tells you, don’t let your self-worth be determined by the presence or absence of a paycheck.
You’re so much more than that.
*Featured/top image: Photo credit: www.Lendingmemo.com.