With new employment numbers due Friday, March 4th, we at FrumForum decided that it was time to listen to the voices of the young as they face the challenges of this economic crisis. Over the next days, in an exclusive series, we will be featuring a number of their first-person stories in this space. If their experience is yours, we welcome you to join the conversation at Editor@FrumForum.com.
Click here for David Frum’s introduction to this series.
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Why do adolescent college graduates — particularly men — “not grow up” is the latest riddle among feature writers. Kay Hymowitz takes aim at the laziness of twentysomething men in her new book Manning Up. In an excerpt published in The Wall Street Journal, she writes: “Today, most men in their 20s hang out in a novel sort of limbo, a hybrid state of semi-hormonal adolescence and responsible self-reliance.” Her proof? Comedienne Julie Klausner (and a “female reviewer” of Klausner’s recent dating book), and Judd Apatow movies. (In another column, her research depended upon crude comments on Internet forums to prove that men are stuck in “pre-adulthood.”) And in the New York Times magazine, Robin Marantz Henig devoted almost 7,800 words– pouring over cultural and even neurobehavioral explanations — to answering the question “What Is It About 20-Somethings?”
So what is it about twentysomethings? As “scientific” as neurobiology is, and as funny as Judd Apatow’s movies are, the real answer for this problem lies in the economic crisis–an explanation that both writers only peripherally mention. The unemployment rate for those 20 to 24 years old is right now at 15.2 percent. For college graduates under 25, it was 8 percent last spring–over double the rate in 2007, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Moreover, nearly half of all college graduates are employed in jobs that don’t require a college degree, such as store clerks or office assistants, according to Andrew Sum, Northeastern University Professor of Economics.
Count me in this club. I graduated in 2009 from Claremont McKenna College, the first spring after the financial crisis. Sometime in the fall, the college’s Career Services — ranked #2 by the Princeton Review — sent out a defensive mass e-mail to our class assuring us that everything was basically normal. However, competition for jobs, and by ripple effect, fellowships and graduate school was extremely stiff — multiple rejection e-mails referred to a “record number of applicants” who applied. By our graduation, which seemed somber on an otherwise perfect Southern California day, only about half of our class had jobs.
I took one unpaid internship after college but, like a lot of college graduates, eventually decided to move back home. Home, of course, has obvious appeals of comfort. But it also sends you back into a quasi-adolescent relationship with your parents, except now my idea of conversation was watching The Charlie Rose Show or listening to Fresh Air, and my idea of a party was watching Jersey Shore.
After applying to more and more jobs in a variety of fields from tech to journalism to store clerking, I got a break in April as a low-paid intern at The Washington Independent, writing on the midterm elections for its companion site, The American Independent. Fortunately–and unlike so many media outlets these days–the Independent seemed like a thriving journalistic enterprise. With just a few reporters, we covered subjects from unemployment to Guantanamo to immigration that slipped through the cracks. After my three months ended, I got promoted to reporter (a paid position), and things were looking up (I moved out of my parents house in April). After the elections, I broke a story (beating the liberal blogs and newspapers) about Rep.-elect Allen West hiring Joyce Kaufman, an incendiary right-wing talk radio show host, as his Chief of Staff. I took a long weekend off to go home, and suddenly Kaufman resigned.
The next week, without any warning, the staff received an e-mail informing us that TWI was shutting down and we would be laid off. The bosses let me stick around until the end of January. In the meantime, I did what is standard advice when facing unemployment: network, apply for jobs, reach out to potential employers. And I still am doing that now.
The Hymowitzian conception of man might think that my daily schedule goes like this: Wake up at 11, eat cold pizza for breakfast, play Xbox for three hours, eat leftover Chinese food for lunch, watch Comedy Central, go onto some Internet site and make misogynistic comments, check Facebook, and repeat the next day.
I do have a weekday routine to stay focused–but it’s not particularly exciting. It involves writing e-mails, preparing nutritious meals for myself, exercising, job-searching, and indeed, watching Comedy Central’s clips of last night’s Stewart and Colbert.
Ironically, youth unemployment is so ubiquitous that you have to force yourself to notice it. Three current and past roommates in the house in which I live in Washington, D.C. have spent some time unemployed. And it’s not just undergraduates–many graduate students with advanced degrees I know have spent months unemployed or aren’t working at jobs in their field.
Those who may differ with my economics thesis might point out that the problem of college graduate unemployment, underemployment, and aimlessness is perennial among twentysomethings. We’ve all seen the movie The Graduate, with Dustin Hoffman playing the Ivy League college graduate who doesn’t know his future–and who receives the unsolicited advice from a family friend to get into “plastics.” Al Pacino in Serpico asks his pretty NYU girlfriend about her Village friends at a party: “How come all your friends are on their way to bein’ someone else?”
To some degree it’s true. But the problem is most certainly aggravated by the recession and it’s just not as easy to “chill out” for a couple of years in your twenties. Today college degrees are more commonplace, and yet students are taking on more and more debt to attain them. Tuition and student debt have risen far faster than inflation. It’s far from unusual for a student to owe tens of thousands, or with a graduate degree, hundreds of thousands of dollars. And even with housing prices down, it’s still hard to live cheaply in a big city. Rents in big cities are no longer say $40 a month–what my father paid during the late 1960s as a student in New York City for a Lower East Side walkup.
College graduate unemployment has real costs. Yale Economist Lisa Kahn found that college graduates who entered the labor force during recession years made 10 percent less than those who entered it during boom years. And there is, of course, lost productivity, idle labor, and a greater worker supply pushing down wages. Then there are those who delay entering the workforce by going to graduate school right out of college–many of whom, without real world experience, may not be able to work in the field and yet still owe hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt.
As for the policy solutions to this problem, the Obama Administration has done well around the margins. Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, I have generous New York State employee health insurance until age 26. Overall, however, legislators have done little, save for some marginally helpful tax breaks and a stimulus that only made the floor of the recession slightly less bad.
For now, a weak job market is a given for young people. And we’re trying to hustle through it, without any expectation — in line with Congressional Budget Office projections — that it will get better. Contrary to the theory of responsibility-free “pre-adulthood” twentysomethings, college graduates now have to be more adult-like at an earlier age. We have to be more proactive to find jobs in a competitive market; we have to juggle loans and credit-card payments; and we have to come up with more in rent each month–or plot a way to leave our parents’ house. While I’d love to go on a “trip to Vegas,” as a Hymowitz-approved quote describing the interests of young men put it, my first priority is getting a job.
Luke Johnson formerly wrote for The Washington Independent. He is looking for a job. No phone calls please, but he can be reached at Lukegjohnson@gmail.com