Into a Crisis

The nickname “Generation Y” is, if nothing else, chronologically accurate: We do indeed follow Generation X. But Generation Y doesn’t reveal much besides an understanding of the alphabet, and it certainly doesn’t account for the dubiousness of our situation. That’s why those of us born from, say, 1984 to 1995 need a different moniker, one that pays homage to the economic chaos that has played such a vital and unfortunate role in shaping our collective identity. Some have proposed Boomerang Generation, as in, we went off to college and ended up going right back home. Others have tossed out Lost Generation, as in, we’re more or less screwed. Bleaker alternatives include Baby Doomers, Dour Children or Generation Hexed.

It’s not that we own this crisis. There was no single group victimized by the recession and the ensuing hangover – a whole bunch were. But our adult lives have been and continue to be sullied by this debacle. Not because our retirement funds and stock portfolios shrank, but because so many of us will never be able to retire or have stock portfolios.

From this generation of castoffs, I personally (and obviously) think that 2008 grads had it the worst. But that’s not to say our brethren from 2009 through 2012 had it much better. The 2009 class was the first of the post-September 2008 collapse, which sent the Dow into a tailspin that didn’t end until two months before their graduation. For its part, the Class of 2010 spent its entire senior year with unemployment stuck between 9.8 and 10.1 percent – double what it was while I was in college – while 2011 grads, who joined three years of backlogged workers, were greeted with the specter of a United States default, a phenomenon that didn’t inspire a lot of hiring. In 2012 people were talking about a Europe-led return to 2008, and in 2013 people were talking about – well, we don’t know yet, but I’d wager it won’t be good.

Despite the distribution of woe across these various classes, the shift in what would come to be known as normal and the graduation of 2008 share an eerie symmetry. The only thing that could make it creepier is if the Mayans had prophesized the whole thing.

For instance, the Friday before my graduation, May 2, the Dow closed at 13,058. That was the highest closing mark for the next three-and-a-half years. What’s more, April 2008, the month before graduation, boasted a respectable unemployment rate of 4.9 percent, which was actually down from the March total of 5.1 percent. Unbeknownst to us at the time, May would feature the biggest one-month spike in unemployment since 1986, kicking off eighteen straight months of rising or stagnant joblessness. Unemployment beelined to 10.1 percent by the time I packed my bags for China in the fall of 2009, and didn’t let up until my 119th consecutive day of eating rice.

It is, of course, immaterial which class had it worst – we all ended up in the same boat. Besides, the title of “most screwed graduating class in modern U.S. history” isn’t exactly one for the mantel. Fighting for that distinction would be like people from Kansas City, Dallas and Memphis bickering about which city really is the fattest in the United States.

At any rate, each of these graduating classes was greeted by a bizarro economy in which a college degree was outlandishly expensive and didn’t provide the insulation it once did. Each of these classes graduated into a new normal that wasn’t nearly as nice as the old one.

***

I was never supposed to be an English teacher in China. When I graduated, and for years prior, I was hellbent on being a journalist. I know that the journalism industry is a tenuous one even in good times, but it was joined by a lot of industries in a recession-induced coma. This story could easily be rewritten with the word “journalist” stricken and replaced with “accountant” or “teacher” or “biochemical engineer.” (Okay, not that last one, but still.)

The recession didn’t discriminate. Six months after getting our diplomas – or, for the 2009 class, six months before – PBS business reporter Erika Miller provided a succinct caption for the bleak picture: “Sony, Dow Chemical, the National Football League and Wyndham are just a sample of the many companies announcing layoffs this week, evidence that virtually every sector of the economy is feeling the pinch.”

And young grads have been getting pinched like never before. In 2005, for instance, the unemployment rate among college graduates under twenty-five was 5.0 percent; in 2006, it was 5.1 percent. By July 2011, the unemployment rate among college graduates under the age of twenty-five – a demographic comprised wholly of grads from 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011 – was 13.1 percent, the worst since the Bureau of Labor Statistics started tracking that stat back in 1985. Hell, in 2011 the unemployment among young master’s degree-holders was 10.1 percent; in 2005, it was 4.6 percent. This put us in the awkward position of having worse job prospects than the average population. And at 9.1 percent unemployment, the average population had underwhelming job prospects.

Bleak as they are, these statistics don’t do the situation justice. When I was tending to rugrats in China, I wasn’t technically “unemployed.” I wasn’t gainfully employed, nor happily employed. But I nonetheless didn’t meet the criteria for unemployment, thereby removing me – like everyone else who was working part-time or waitressing or otherwise atrophying – from the equation. A better measure is underemployment, or mal-employment, which is unemployment coupled with work that doesn’t require a college degree. According to the Associated Press, that combination in April 2012 included more than half of college grads under the age of twenty-five.

It is by now redundant to make the case that the recession was really bad. But there is an air of contempt directed toward youngsters who were shafted by it, a sense that we weren’t doomed by circumstances, but by our own Facebook-fueled personality defects and an unwillingness to get our hands dirty.

This derision was eloquently articulated by Daniel Indiviglio of The Atlantic. In August 2009, Indiviglio – who, as a twenty-nine-year-old, had apparently achieved sagedom – wrote a blog post dripping with condescension:

 I can still remember struggling to find a job when I came out of college. The economy was bad then as well. The economy was not as bad as it is now, but it was still a nasty recession that specifically affected the region where and industry in which I hoped to work. It took me six months to find a job…. I hated having to move home for six months, but ultimately I was patient and found something….

Many young people in their 20s today are having trouble in employment due to short attention spans and the need for immediate recognition and advancement. Unfortunately, that’s not how the real world works. Getting a job has never been easy and getting promoted quickly is not guaranteed by coming in each day with a steady pulse.

 Jean Twenge, who received her undergrad degree in 1993, has detailed the defects of young Americans in books like Generation Me and The Narcissism Epidemic. In 2010, Twenge told The Atlantic: “There’s this idea that, ‘Yeah, I don’t want to work, but I’m still going to get all the stuff I want.’ It’s a generation in which every kid has been told, ‘You can be anything you want. You’re special.’”

One more: Writing for CNN, Ruben Navarrette (Class of 1990) says that many Millennials

have set themselves up to be casualties of the job downturn. In a competitive global economy, which is not interested in catering to anyone’s sense of self-worth, these young people may learn the hard way that their needs and expectations don’t match reality and that jobs are hard to come by.

He goes on to note that we “often don’t vote,” are “easily disillusioned and unforgiving,” “can be hard to reach” and “don’t take orders, criticism or direction well.” His editor must have cut the part about our lackluster oral hygiene.

The only thing more clichéd than moaning about younger generations is moaning about older ones. So unlike these righteous preachers, I won’t pretend to know what others went through upon trying to enter the job market. But I do know that whatever our lecturers had to contend with, it wasn’t as bad as what we’ve gone through. And this really isn’t debatable. Unless you’re a recent graduate or your name is Great-Grandpa, this is different. It’s all fair and good to bemoan our addiction to text messaging or to decry our wilted attention spans. But let’s cut the crap about young graduates being some bizarre, unemployable species.

All is not lost, though. For as famed UCLA basketball coach John Wooden (and surely countless others) once remarked: “Those who have the most are those who do the most with what they have.” Well, I have a book advance in the form of a Stafford loan, as well as an itch to record, as best I can, what this mess looked like from our vantage point.