That period right after college graduation is when young people tend to think they can set the world on fire. Careers are starting, and relationships in the broader world are forming. It’s exciting, and optimism is high.
So the gloomy outlook that this economy is offering so many of America’s brightest young people is not just disconcerting, it’s a cultural shift, a harbinger.
Maggie Mertens graduated in May from Smith College, where she was an editor of the student newspaper. She applied for “tons” of jobs and internships, probably 50 or more. “I was totally unemployed all summer,” she said. She eventually landed an internship at National Public Radio in Washington, D.C., which she described as “awesome,” but it is unpaid.
“I was lucky enough,” she said, “to connect up with a family that let me live with them for free in exchange for watching their baby a few times a week.” But there was still no money coming in. So in addition to the 40-hour-a-week internship and the baby-sitting chores, Mertens is doing part-time seasonal work at a Whole Foods store.
Welcome to the new world of employment in America as we approach the second decade of the 21st century.
Josh Riman graduated from Syracuse University in 2006. “I had a job at a great advertising agency,” he said, “but was laid off in 2007. I found a job the next day, amazingly enough, and worked at this next advertising shop for about a year and a half. Then, on my birthday, the place went bankrupt. We all lost our jobs.”
Since then, Riman has been doing freelance and “pro bono” work. He has been unable to find anything even reasonably secure.
As jobs become increasingly scarce, more and more United States college graduates are working for free, at internships, which is great for employers but something of a handicap for a young man or woman who has to pay for food or a place to live.
“The whole idea of apprenticeships is coming back into vogue, as it was 100 years ago,” said John Noble, director of the Office of Career Counseling at Williams College. “Certain industries, such as the media, TV, radio and so on, have always exploited recent graduates, giving them a chance to get into a very competitive field in exchange for making them work for no — or low — pay. But now this is spreading to many other industries.”
Lonnie Dunlap, who heads the career services program at Northwestern University and has been advising young people on careers since the mid-70s, said today’s graduates are experiencing the worst employment market she’s ever seen.
“There’s a sense of huge emotional anxiety among our students,” she said. The young people are not only having trouble finding work themselves; many feel a sense of obligation to parents who are struggling with job losses and home foreclosures.
“In the past two years,” said Dunlap, “we have seen a huge uptick in the number of recent alums coming back for services because they still haven’t found work, as well as midcareer alums who have been laid off and need our help.”
Like Noble, she mentioned the growing use of interns versus paid employees and said she can see the value of such unpaid work for some recent graduates, “though, of course, not everyone can afford to do that.”
Despite the expansion of the gross domestic product in the quarter that ended in September, there is no sign of the kind of recovery in employment that would be needed to bring the American economy and the economic condition of American families back to robust health. It would be nice if some of the politicians and economists so obsessed with the GDP would take a moment to look out the window at what is happening with real people in the real world.
They might see Laura Ram, who graduated from Baruch College in New York in May 2007. She was laid off from a full-time job almost exactly a year ago and hasn’t worked since. She’s been diligent about submitting applications and showing up at job fairs and so on, but nothing has come close to panning out.
“I haven’t gone on a single interview,” she said, “which manages to shock just about my entire family.”
These recent graduates have done everything society told them to do. They’ve worked hard and gotten a good education (in many cases from the nation’s best schools). They are ready and anxious to work. If America is having trouble finding employment for even these kids, then it’s doing something profoundly wrong.