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A generation in free fall | Recession shatters many young career dreams

Updated: 2011-03-03T19:24:17Z

By SCOTT CANON and DIANE STAFFORD

The Kansas City Star

This just ain’t where I’m ’sposed to be, rapper Consequence says in his “Job Song.”

It could be the chant of a young generation.

Our wounded economy has twentysomethings limping into the job market. Large numbers are out of work. Even more look long and hard only to find jobs that don’t capitalize on their talents or pay much.

They hoped for more and got less.

Many of today’s workaday newbies are left out — and left to pay student loans with tips from waiting tables, left to compete against far more experienced folks who’ve been laid off, left hunting for a paycheck, any paycheck, from the computer in Mom’s basement.

“I pictured myself in a suit and tie, working in an office, making a decent salary,” said Adam Barry, 23, who graduated from Baker University last year with a business degree.

Instead, he wears an orange polo shirt to work every day, selling paint to do-it-yourselfers while pondering how he’ll overcome $37,000 in college loan debt.

“Like a lot of people my age,” he said, “I’m looking for something better.”

Before the Great Recession, seven in 10 people ages 20 to 24 had a job or were looking for work. Now that has fallen about 15 percent. Some are hiding out in school, or giving up hope.

To be sure, a solid majority of those in that labor force have found work. Still, unemployment for those young adults more than doubled in the last decade and is stuck around 15 percent, 50 percent higher than the overall joblessness rate.

It’s a generation stalled, exiled from an economy hung over from a crash set off by house-flippers, mortgage scammers and Wall Street shell games. A modest recovery is under way — emphasis on modest.

“You keep trying. You keep your head up,” said Paul Aubrey, who at 29 lives awkwardly with his parents in Gladstone while settling temporarily for a bank teller’s job. “But it gets awfully discouraging.”

Even among the college-educated, prospects have soured. In 2000, 4.3 percent of those with bachelor’s degrees of all ages were unemployed. Today it has nearly doubled to 8.5 percent. College surveys found that in 2004, more than 76 percent of grads were working within six months after leaving campus. By 2008, the most recent year measured nationally, that had fallen to 68 percent.

Evidence suggests that the battered economy will stunt the careers of today’s young. Many are settling for lower salaries, which will beget smaller wages for the rest of their working lives — as much as a fifth below someone who started a career in fatter times.

It will set back their psychological maturity, delaying when they marry or have children or buy homes. Their unborn children’s college educations could already be in doubt.

Large numbers will default on student loans or end up owing great amounts to trade schools without finding a place to drive a screw or wire a fuse. Or they’ll borrow themselves deeper into debt, gambling that times will eventually get better.

“Is the American dream dead for me?” recent law school graduate Ted Brassfield asked President Barack Obama at a summer town hall meeting.

The president replied, “Absolutely not,” but later the young man told reporters: “Hope is fading.”

The young’s problems are everyone’s trouble. The joblessness means fewer people propping up Social Security, Medicare and other generational transfers of money.

Parents who thought they’d nurtured offspring into independence find 24-year-olds still on the family cell phone bill, still on their insurance plan, still sleeping on their couches. And that assumes Mom hasn’t gotten the ax at Sprint or Dad’s Raytown home hasn’t slipped into foreclosure.

Junior just might end up homeless.

Or in trouble. Crime is largely a young person’s game, and the out-of-work more often run outside the law.

For people in the trades, there’s simply too little work.

Construction is stuck in a deep down cycle. The few paychecks it offers go to people who’ve been building the calluses on their hands for decades. Many of those older plumbers and carpenters and electricians find themselves turning wrenches and pounding nails for extra years while they wait for retirement savings to bounce back.

‘Close to depression’

For the best and brightest, there’s a pain peculiar to training for a workplace Olympics only to see the games canceled.

Summer Nelson followed the advice of smart people, applied herself, hunted down and even created internships for herself. Even while waitressing her way through William Jewell College, her ambition to parlay a degree in organizational communications into a gig as an event planner seemed savvy. Peers graduating three years, two years, one year ahead moved seamlessly from campus to cubicle.

Then she graduated in May 2009. And nothing. The crash hadn’t just collapsed banks and made GM into Government Motors, it took her brass ring and tossed it in an ocean.

June, July, August. No job. September, October, November, December. Year over and still nothing but volunteering for anybody who would have her, some who didn’t even know they needed help, even as she continued waiting more tables, often buttonholing customers for job tips.

“My student loans were coming due. I thought: ‘I’ll have a job next month. I’ll have a job next month.’ ”

January, February, March. Still looking. She found herself quick to yell, quick to cry, “pretty close to depression.”

“I felt angry at times. I can’t say who I was angry at. I was just angry. I had done everything I was supposed to in college, and I was doing everything to get a job.”

April. Nada, May. Zip.

“People kept telling me, ‘Oh, it’ll get better.’ But when?”

Finally in June, the Northland Regional Chamber of Commerce had a part-time spot exactly suited to her. In August it went full-time, a modest salary in line with the finances of a nonprofit employer with full benefits. She was elated, if bruised, because she’d had to turn to her parents to figure out how to juggle rent and school loans and all the rest — simply because she was too stressed to think straight.

She tries to be careful about flaunting her good fortune. She’s got one friend stuck at a call center. Others are still on the paycheck hunt.

While some, like Nelson, looked long and hard and made the best of it, others found ideal jobs only to lose them when the economy cratered.

Katie Strain knew months before she graduated from Kansas State University in 2008 that there was a $50,000 traffic engineer’s job waiting for her at George Butler Associates in the St. Louis suburbs.

She loved the job, but last April her boss told her there just wasn’t enough work. Ever since she’s been jobless.

The 25-year-old, who is living with her father, could easily switch to another specialty like wastewater engineering. But, she said, “there are just so many unemployed people out there. And most of them have experience that I don’t.”

Sense of entitlement

You can almost hear the old folks saying life ain’t fair. Put yourselves in the shoes of a 50-year-old who seems too old to employers. Suck it up.

But this generation of Americans grew up in great prosperity. They didn’t just have a chicken in every pot, but a cell phone in every pocket.

“What has changed is, you can’t just roll out and land on your feet,” said Barbara Cooke, a career counselor at Metropolitan Community College-Maple Woods and author of “Parent’s Guide to College and Careers.”

America’s culture also took on a sense of economic entitlement, perhaps driven by the notion that our technological brilliance would continue minting billionaires and brand new industries. But now, the kids who shared their hookups and breakups on Facebook post about their endless job hunts.

Whoever stereotypes an entire generation is as likely to get the label as right as the person who thinks no one over 40 ever wears flip-flops to work and that no one under 40 can handle a necktie.

A book by Jean Twenge, “Generation Me,” suggests people in their 20s grew up being fed unrealistic expectations by their parents and media. Nearly three in five high school graduates, for instance, expect to finish not just college but graduate school. In reality, by age 35 fewer than one in 10 of us get that extra sheepskin.

“They don’t adjust to the reality that a job that is lower than what you expected is better than no job at all,” said Twenge, a San Diego State University psychologist.

“They could end up with a lot of wasted years while they wait for what they want rather than what they can get.”

Geoffrey Voss, for one, has swallowed a bitter dose of reality. He worked his way through the University of Missouri-Kansas City by loading boxes onto delivery trucks. Now with an accounting degree, he’s still working evenings, hefting up to 1,000 packages a night onto a conveyer belt.

“I’m not too surprised that it’s been difficult to get a new job,” said the 27-year-old, who’s living with his parents in Prairie Village. “I’m just not happy about it.”

What complicates the hard times for the young, said Clark University psychologist Jeffrey Arnett, is that they haven’t fully become adult. His studies of “emerging adulthood” — the slow process that doesn’t see full maturity until about 30 — find that trouble landing work delays maturation and a healthy sense of self-worth.

Staying optimistic

Youth can bring both resiliency and fragility. Simply because young adults can bounce back from these bad times is not to say they won’t be set back.

Even in boom times, people in their 20s tend to change jobs frequently without accumulating much status or wealth. We’re still finding ourselves, Arnett said, until we enter our fourth decade.

Optimism, he said, is the savior of youth: “Even when times are tough, even though they’re mostly doing low-paying, crummy jobs, they almost universally feel that they’ll find a better job. They’re not fragile little darlings.”

Kelly Ragsdale had high ambitions and the drive to push for them. In four years she racked up degrees in French, international relations and applied critical thought. She squeezed in her triple major while performing with her campus dance team and staying active in a sorority. She was geared for a high-powered career in public policy.

Instead she’s working a car rental counter.

“I couldn’t be too picky,” said the 22-year-old from Independence. “I had to embrace whatever came along.”

As Ragsdale put it, “Nobody wakes up and their dream is to rent cars.” But she’d spent four anxious months scanning Monster.com and CareerBuilder.com, e-mailing and faxing her go-getter resume to anyone she could think of.

“It was very frustrating to go to an interview and realize you were one of 50 or one of 100,” she said. “Then you look around, and all these other people had been in the job force for 10 or 15 years, and here all I’ve got is this diploma.”

She ultimately found the car rental job, albeit unrelated to her training, which she likes and aims to stick with. But she learned something along the way.

“We have all these things that our parents and our grandparents didn’t have,” Ragsdale said. “To step out into the real world and not be handed everything I want, it’s frustrating.”

University of North Carolina sociologist Glen Elder said what happened to workers discarded in the Great Depression of the 1930s and the 1980s farm crisis suggests our current doldrums could leave deep lifelong scars.

If many in Generation Y are still blessed with the optimism and flexibility that has always defined youth, he said, that’s not to say they will emerge from the recession without real bruises. Elder predicted many will be more timid about money, more hesitant to take risks generally, and less eager to flit between jobs — bucking a trend that has had employers griping for years about the difficulty in retaining young workers.

Yet Elder said this brutal economy could jolt this gang particularly hard.

“Kids of the Depression came from families that weren’t far away from poverty to begin with. It’s different now,” he said. “This is an untested generation.”

The slow rate at which the economy is recovering makes for a grueling exam.

“I’m getting older,” said Caleb Sternadel, 27, “and have nothing started yet.”

He took 6 1/2 years to earn a bachelor’s degree in finance at the University of Kansas while working full time at a Sonic restaurant. It was the only way he could afford college. That left him without the time to beef up his resume with internships or campus leadership posts.

So when he applied for financial analysis work after graduating in December 2008 — after the crash — he thought his resume got quickly tossed in the discard piles.

He eventually landed a bank teller job — at starting pay that’s only $1 more an hour than what his mother earned as a starting teller 10 years earlier.

Meantime, he’s saddled with about $100,000 in college debt. He has signed up for more with an MBA class at Avila University.

Why?

“I know it’s a gamble, but right now I’ll never be able to pay back the loans. I’ll never, never be able to buy a house,” Sternadel said. “It’s hard to stay positive.”

By late October he’d found a job in a billing and accounting department: It’s not, he said, “a dream job, but it is definitely a start.”

Indeed, many of his generation who thought they’d be well into exciting careers instead find themselves merely inching along at less thrilling jobs.

“We all obviously want to succeed. They want to do it faster,” said Ron Alsop, the author of “The Trophy Kids Grow Up: How the Millennial Generation Is Shaking Up the Workplace.” “One thing about the recession: It ought to bring down their expectations.”

Accepting first offers

Even in 2009, with the recession at its worst, more than half of college graduates turned down their first job offers — the identical rate seen in the go-go days of early 2008. But that’s changed, and a survey of 13,000 fresh college grads this year found that about six in 10 are taking those first offers, a record high.

That research by the National Association of Colleges and Employers also finds a generation desperately seeking security. Their top factors in choosing a potential employer were, in order: an opportunity for advancement, location, job security and a high salary.

Just two years earlier the desires were the same as those of their parents’ generation: opportunities for personal development and creativity.

Also striking, said NACE research director Edwin Koc, is the anxious dependence of young job seekers. Nearly half said they expected to lean heavily on their folks for money in the coming year, and the vast majority wanted to stay close to where their parents raised them.

Contrary to what’s perceived, they want an employer who will pay for their health insurance. And though an ambitious few have responded to the rejections of their resumes by cranking their own upstart businesses, they’re the decided exception. Surveys suggest most are not anxious to test the business world on their own.

“This group is far more concerned with financial security and expecting to rely on someone else,” Koc said. “Very few want to start their own business.

“They don’t,” he said, “want to take risks.”

At LandaJob Advertising & Marketing Talent in Kansas City, Kathryn Lorenzen finds a “very, very nervous” clientele of young job hunters. They’re torn over whether to settle for disappointing jobs or wait for more idyllic offers.

Still, even the outgoing and ambitious are doing all the right things and hearing all the wrong answers. Mostly, they hear no. And their margin for failure is slipping.

“Some young people can’t fall back on their parents. They’re strapped, too,” says Bruce Tulgan, founder of RainmakerThinking and an analyst of young working adults.

“Will there be diminished opportunities? Yes. Will a lot of careers be derailed, delayed, fundamentally altered? Yes,” he said. “Many are in survival mode, working well below their expectations and doing a lot more grunt work.”


Job hunting blues
Day One:

Less Than Expected

Today’s economy leaves young adults like …

Day Two:

The least employable

Even in good times, those without education or skills had it rough. Now they risk a long and anxious exile from the workforce.

Day Three:

Striking out on their own

Some young adults are creating their own jobs, becoming their own bosses.

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