Friday, May 14, 2010
The other day I was emailing a friend of mine now living in Portland, Oregon, and I asked him if he had found any work. That's a pretty normal thing to ask the folks in my age/education demographic bracket these days—my bracket being kids in their early 20s who just graduated from prestigious or semi-prestigious universities who are mostly the children of middle and upper-middle class parents. Our bracket is getting the shit kicked out of it. My friend is living with his girlfriend (another bracket-mate, working as a nanny), on food stamps, and writing essays that he hopes to sell for low amounts of money. After sending out application after application via Craigslist and a brief, unhappy stint as a kickball umpire, my anonymous buddy has found work at a “really terrible smoothie shop inside of a gym.” This is a guy who graduated from my school a semester before I did, and who can presumably do something a lot better than telling gym rats exactly how many grams of protein is in the mango-strawberry blend. And he's not unique.
Some of my friends moved back into their parents' houses right after graduation. Others stuck it out in the city of their choice, but they usually got subsidized like a failing financial institution by their parents. Most, feeling the weight of their debt to their parents, took any opportunity to get a job that would give them an independent income—meaning they umpired kickball, scooped ice cream, applied to work at Home Depot just like they applied to Princeton five years ago, and learned the intricacies of government programs like unemployment, Medicaid, and food stamps. A surprising amount of them now play online poker for a living, which means they are smart, math-inclined, and disciplined enough to sit in front of their computer staring at numbers for hours at a time, yet they can't get a job. A whole lot of us work for the census, which is paying good money while it lasts, but knocking on doors like Tim Meadows isn't what we had in mind when we got those fancy degrees handed to us. Some of the people I know are going back to school already, either to get a more “useful” degree or to simply hide out in academia for a little longer.
But enough anecdotal evidence, which any competent economist or SABR-matician will tell you is a bunch of randomly occurring bullshit: here's a page of numbers. The numbers say that despite the progress the economy is making, 16 percent of 20 to 24 year olds are unemployed. That's better than the 16 to 19 year old age bracket, but the job market is always tough on 17 year olds—by the time you're in your 20s, you really should be able to get a job. So why can't my peer group get it together?
As with everything, there are a multitude of reasons. Number one has nothing to do with the economy: a four-year degree doesn't mean what it used to. College enrollment has been rising for decades, to the point where every middle class child is expected to grow up to attend the most expensive university that will have him. We did our duty and went straight from high school to college (which is basically high school where everyone gets laid), and when we graduated and got our piece of paper, we found out that everyone else our age had the same piece of paper, and that a bachelor's degree isn't the ticket to a white-collar job it once was. Even before money turned itself inside out, kids who were too old to really be called “kids” were moving back in with their parents after finding out that graduating from college doesn't automatically make you an independent adult. (The trend even has it's own Wikipedia entry.)
But in these troubling economic times, when “sub prime mortgage” is a part of everyone's vocabulary even if no one knows what it means, it's even tougher for young people to transition from college to a job to a career to an apartment without roaches to the final stage in life when you have kids and multiple bank accounts and don't stay awake late enough to watch The Daily Show. When my graduating class went into the job market we weren't just competing with each other but also with the swarm of older, more experienced workers who had just gotten laid off, for jobs that were getting scarcer and scarcer. Is it any wonder that so many of us are sitting in the basement bedroom where we used to masturbate three times a day as teens, playing poker for a living or scanning and refreshing Craigslist every five minutes?
I don't want to exaggerate—some of my friends, through a combination of luck, perseverance and talent, are doing very well, thank you for asking. But it's worth noting that the government, who is in the business of bailouts these days, hasn't done my demographic any favors. Extending unemployment benefits didn't help, since few of us recent graduates had worked enough hours to claim unemployment in the first place. Cash for Clunkers wasn't designed for people who didn't have cars. And I've yet to understand how the TARP money is going to trickle down to us. Politicians don't really care about young people—for all the talk about how the “middle class” and “small business” are “the backbone of our economy,” no one has mentioned what body part recent college graduates are supposed to be. (But I have a guess.) A while ago I had a daydream that the government would step in and directly create jobs through a new program based on the Works Progress Administration and smart, motivated young people would line up in droves to be part of it, but I guess that would be Socialism, and Socialism is what got us into this mess in the first place. (Wait, what?)
The irony to be found here is that the aspiring artists among my generation are more prepared for this economic climate than the rest of us. Artists expect to go through a period of destitution in their early-to-mid 20s. Hell, they practically look forward to it when they're teenagers. But now everyone is basically a starving artist, and that has created a new and weird hybrid economic caste—raised on middle-class values, educated like the upper-class, and now living below the poverty line. We buy organic food with our food stamps. We break off late-night discussions of Lacan and craft brewing to ask each other if the coffee shop down the street is hiring. We go to the library to use the computer and nod hello to the homeless guys hanging out there. We get mildly embarrassed when the rent check arrives from our parents, but that's wearing off. Most of us did actually work hard in college, and learned some skills that we thought would be useful, but no one is buying what we want to sell.
This sucks, right here.
I have no idea what the long-term impact of our demographic's mini-depression will be. At best, I suppose, we'll just be late bloomers when it comes to starting careers, buying homes, and raising kids. (Actually, at best we will rise as one and seize the country in the grip of revolution, but that's not happening.) At worst...who knows? Maybe twenty years down the road, ours will have turned out to be a generation of filing clerks and coffee serves who have whole libraries of unused knowledge in their heads. But I hope not.