I am in the unfortunate position of being able to describe the U.S. economy from the eyes of an unemployed 20-something, and it is not pretty. There has been a lot of talk about employment and class in the United States during the past few years, but the reality is that it is far worse than it seems at first glance. The massive layoffs of the Great Recession have been followed by yet another jobless recovery, with no end in sight to the misery. The unemployment rate may officially be 7.4%, down from a high of 10% in October 2009, but almost all of the improvement in that number has come from the millions of Americans who have dropped out of the work force after giving up hope of finding a job. In other words, outside of the rich, who have seen their wealth recover in-step with the rebound of the stock market, things are not much better for millions of Americans than they were at the nadir of the recession.
But perhaps the most frightening aspect of this recession, at least from the eyes of a young person such as myself, is that there seem to be fewer ways out of this plight than in the past. Recessions have always hit the young hard, as employers frequently respond to an economic downturn by freezing hiring and laying off the least senior workers first. But unlike older workers, the young could easily hide from unemployment for a few years by entering into a graduate program, upgrading their skills, and assuming a position in a high-paying profession afterward. The problem is, today, this option is increasingly less attainable. Many of the degrees that have traditionally granted access to exclusive professions, such as law, medicine, and academia, have dreadful job prospects. The result is that it feels like wherever we look, our options are either nonexistent or increasingly poor. And we wonder if, regardless of how hard we work, we can ever obtain the success of our parents.
Some of this pessimism is due to the particular harshness of this business cycle and the fact that graduating into a recession is known to blunt future career progress. Yet a growing portion of the gloom is a response to structural problems that are unlikely to improve in the near term. For example, the emphasis on containing medical costs will force salaries for doctors to go down in the coming years. While this may not seem a big deal given the amount doctors can make today, it's actually a potentially catastrophic problem if you consider the fact that many medical school graduates finish with close to $200,000 in debt and then must take poorly paying training jobs (residency and fellowships) for years after where they make roughly $50,000. It's not until many years following graduation that doctors reach their full earning potential. Or consider the market for PhD graduates. PhD students spend years preparing to be professors but increasingly find the only teaching jobs available to them are adjunct positions, which are low-paying, carry no benefits, and are not eligible for tenure. And let's not even get started on job prospects for lawyers.
And while there are certainly other roads to employment and career success, the overall point that opportunities for young people are increasingly limited is still valid. On one end of the spectrum, entry-level jobs that build skills for future career advancement are still in limited supply, leading to a shortage of skilled workers needed to replace aging baby boomers. On the other end, millennials who seek to avoid the typical holding pattern of part-time jobs and internships by enrolling in graduate school are quickly realizing that the market for their new skills is not as robust as they were led to believe. This realization is supported by the painful reality of the so-called economic recovery: more than half of the jobs created since the end of the recession have been low-paying, the majority of recent college graduates are working in fields that don't require bachelors degrees, and prospects for future, high-quality job creation are no better.
So the question then, is, what is my generation supposed to do? Faced with these challenges is it possible for us to become part of the fabled, but shrinking, American middle class? Not everyone can invent a successful startup, work in the family business, or land one of the increasingly rare jobs that offer prospects of upward mobility. Even traditional paths into the middle class, such as through the armed forces or government service, are under pressure. And I want to make it clear that we understand that the world is more competitive today than it was in the past and we are not afraid of the hard work it takes to be successful. Simply showing up with a bachelor's degree will no longer guarantee you a good job. We get that. But, for our age, my generation is the best-educated, most-accomplished (thank you helicopter parents), most worldly generation ever in American history. Yet all our achievements have so far earned us pitiful returns in this economy.
So to wrap this up, the U.S. economy from the eyes of an unemployed 20-something is a depressing and terrifying sight. To many of us, it's no longer obvious how to advance our careers and gain access to the lives we want. Some might argue this is just another case of my generation being "lazy, entitled narcissists," but I think the points I've made speak for themselves as does the fact that people of all ages are voting with their feet when it comes to participating in the workforce. We're not afraid of hard work, nor are we asking for pity. We simply want to put our education and energy to work in ways that will give us a chance at upward mobility. Perhaps, like with the national debt and climate change, this is a problem whose solution we will have to provide ourselves. Good thing I know we are up to the task.