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In college, English major Michael Greene planned to pursue a career in advertising. He built a portfolio and had several interviews. But when he graduated in 2008, the recession was in full swing.
Now, six years later, he's held a handful of jobs in various fields—telemarketing, office administration and now information technology—but not advertising. While his IT job pays the bills, the Californian still hopes to someday work in his field of choice.
He occasionally lands interviews and the interviewers always compliment his work, "but I'm never picked because there are so many people trying to get the job," Greene said. "There are just that many unemployed or underemployed people out there. ... You have to be the absolute best at something to even get a foot in the door."
Although many official measurements show the economy is recovering, millions of Americans like Greene still don't feel like they've recovered from the Great Recession. While official unemployment rates have declined and approximately 10 million private sector jobs have been added since June 2009, many say those numbers don't tell the full story.
As of August 2014, 3 million Americans had been unemployed for more than six months, and more than 2 million had been unemployed for more than a year, according to a new study from the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University. And even among those who are employed, like Greene, many are underemployed or simply holding placeholder jobs until they can find a more fulfilling (and, often, higher-paying) position.
Read MoreWhat's the real unemployment rate?
Beyond the official Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers, the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) estimates there are another 6.3 million "missing workers" who are not being counted as unemployed. "These are people who would either be working or looking for work, and thus counted in official labor market stats, if job opportunities were stronger," said Valerie Wilson, Ph.D., director of the EPI's Program on Race, Ethnicity and the Economy.
"Beyond employment, another other factor at play in the public's perception of how they are or are not experiencing the recovery is stagnant wage growth," she added. "The fact that there are so many unemployed and underemployed is one of the factors in why wages have not grown in this recovery. With so many still looking for work, there's little pressure on employers to bid up wages to get and keep the workers they need."
Long-term unemployment and underemployment has had lasting effects: Most of the long-term unemployed say they have less in savings and income than they did five years ago, have experienced stress in family relationships and close friendships during their time without a job, and believe they will need to retire later than planned because of the recession, according to the Heldrich study.
Nearly half of the long-term unemployed said it will take three to 10 years for their families to recover financially, while another 1 in 5 say it will take longer than that or that they will never recover.
Many of those who are getting jobs are struggling to get ahead financially too. That's because many of the jobs that have been created since the recession don't pay as well as those that were lost. Many of the jobs that disappeared during the recession were high- and middle-wage positions. Most of those added back are in low-wage occupations. That means people may be employed but they aren't getting ahead—or even catching up with their former selves.
A recent report by the U.S. Conference of Mayors and IHS Global Insight found that new jobs pay 23 percent less than the positions lost in the recession. The wage gap is "significantly larger" than that of the country's last recession and recovery, the report found, and implies $93 billion in lower wage income.
In addition, many of those who are now working part-time hours may no longer be counted among the unemployed even though they would prefer full-time jobs. "People who want more work hours than they can get are all around us and their numbers track quite closely to the national unemployment rate," said Douglas Maynard, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the State University of New York at New Paltz.
"In other words, when more people are out of work, more people are also settling for part-time jobs when they would like full-time work. When times are tough, people are forced to either get creative or settle for what they can get."
Others, like Mitch Dowell, 43, have launched their own micro-businesses to make ends meet. After being laid off from a marketing job in May 2010, the Washington D.C. resident never found full-time work. To keep his family afloat, he started a one-man graphic design company, joining "the increasing ranks of what has become known as the self-unemployed," he said.
"This new demographic is very hard to measure, and therefore the numbers that are being used to define an economic recovery are very incomplete and don't tell an accurate story."
Americans who have not experienced a recovery have learned to live with a new financial reality. In Dowell's household, his "self-unemployment" has had "a ripple effect in everything our household does or considers doing," he said. "We can't plan anything ahead of time, socially or otherwise. Vacations, or even long weekends, are a thing of the past. Health care and medical-related decision-making is lumped in with the other bills, instead of being the priority it should be."
Larry Kaplan, 61, an accomplished nonprofit executive whose organization went under in 2009, has also adapted his lifestyle as a consultant to such groups. While he loves the work he's doing now, he lives on a bare-bones budget, clipping coupons, rarely eating out, shopping at thrift stores and no longer taking vacations or attending the theater or concerts.
Perhaps most difficult are the emotional challenges: "It often feels like you are not your name, but merely the job title that comes after your name," Kaplan said. "People, especially in business, judge you by your job, your clout, your perceived income, your connections and not your intrinsic value as a human being."
Those living outside the economic recovery say they expect less than they once did. Kaplan no longer anticipates ever fully retiring, but plans to keep working part time if he can get work. He realizes he probably won't be able to afford to stay in his home, in a trendy L.A. neighborhood. Instead, he now expects he'll have to sell it and relocate "to a more remote, less urban and cheaper community in about 10 years."
While advertising-hopeful-turned-IT-administrator Greene still hopes to work in his chosen field, his outlook has changed. "I have come to terms with the reality of life," he said. "It's wrong to assume that life's fair, so I make the most out of what I have. And I've sailed too deep into my 20s to take a low-paying job and start fresh again."
—By Nancy Mann Jackson, special to CNBC.com