Grim Prospects Could Scar College Grads
Megan Silsby earned a biology degree last month from Virginia Tech, and she considers herself a full-time worker even though she hasn't landed a job in this rough economy.
Megan Silsby, a 2012 graduate of Virginia Tech, is looking for a job. Since her graduation in December she has set up an office in her parent's basement and works business hours there actively looking for employment.
Silsby is part of a class of 2012 that entered school as Wall Street crashedin September 2008, sending their elders flailing for remedies and scapegoats. Some say the class now graduating will have to grow up fast. Especially since college debt has grown to $1 trillion and many must start paying back loans.
Every day at 8 a.m., Silsby, 22, heads to a basement office in her parents' home in Chantilly, Va. All day, she searches the Internet for openings, applies for jobs, follows up with phone calls. She has applied for more than 80 jobs, with no luck so far.
"I've definitely kind of had to sit down sometimes and keep myself from getting discouraged, because honestly I feel if I get that interview …" and her voice trails, youthful optimism diluted by the fallout of the Great Recession.
For the moment, Silsby finds compensation elsewhere, especially in the reconnection with her parents and two younger siblings. Her father has jokingly told her that he hopes she will never move out. She yearns for independence, but the job hunt has been a forced primer of how competitive the world is and a reaffirmation that being close to her family is important to her. Meanwhile, almost $30,000 in college loans wait to be repaid.
Variations of this story are being lived, one by one, by legions of college graduates confronting a tight job market. And one by one, generational attitudes are being formed about work, security and even family, particularly among people younger than 25 who have entered the job market since 2008.
The national unemployment rate rose to 8.2% in May as Silsby was graduating as one of 2.6 million who got bachelor's, master's or doctoral degrees in the school year now ending. The non-partisan Economic Policy Institute called their labor market "grim" and said that over the previous year, unemployment among college graduates younger than 25 had averaged 9.4%, with an additional 19.1% in jobs for which they were overqualified.
Beneath this cascade of sobering statistics, a new pragmatism might be forming.
"A lot of us are silly optimistic, sometimes," says Amanda Frattarola, 22, who graduated from the University of Vermont in 2011 and found a job as a health and wellness coordinator in Arlington, Texas. Her job search lasted eight months. She says it does not pay what she or her mother expected, and it is far from the New York City address she dreamed of having. But she likes the work, is supporting herself and has held firmly to "that mentality that everything will work out for me. Some of the hardest days of my life have been in this past year. I also feel like I have learned so much about myself."
Back to the 1930s
Social scientists say these young adults are a lot like the Americans who came of age in the early 1930s, both in the economic upheaval they confront and in the attitudes toward success, contentment and risk aversion that they are forming.
"The economic situation (of young adults) is completely parallel and analogous to the (Depression-era) GI generation — raised in relative affluence, and then just as they are to start in that affluent world, it all comes crashing down," says Morley Winograd, who has co-authored several books on Millennials, the generation born from 1982 to 2003. "And so they have to find new ways to persevere. They just have assumed that everything that came before them was a mirage — that it was false, built on unsafe foundations."
They were part of the "baby on board" generation, born in '90s affluence and often hyper-protected through adolescence in a security-conscious, post-9/11 world. Now they face an economic reality few saw coming. Some say the growing up will be fast.
"We have prepared the path for the child instead of the child for the path," says Tim Elmore, an author and lecturer who specializes in the development of young adults. "We have paved the way, but now there are unpaved roads out there that are rocky and dirty."
Optimism vs. Pessimism
Polls show Americans in their early 20s are pessimistic about immediate job prospects but say a life at least as good as their parents' is not only possible, but likely.