Has America Lost the Future? Ask a College Grad
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Kathy Deveney
Karlee Weinmann
The Fiscal Times
September 22, 2011

It’s no surprise that recent college grads are having a rough time in the brutal job market, but new census data shows it’s even worse out there than expected. The figures show that employment among young adults is now at a dismal 55.3 percent, down from 67.3 percent in 2000 and the lowest since World War II. Nearly 1 in 5 of these young adults is at risk of living in poverty.

They’re also forgoing long-distance moves and instead moving back home with mom and dad. Some 5.9 million young adults age 25-34 lived with their parents last year, up 25 percent since before the recession – and the “mancession” is hitting young men hard. Men 25-34 are now nearly twice as likely as women to live with their parents. For college graduates 18-34, typically eager to relocate out of state, only 2.4 percent moved across state lines, a record low.

Kelsey Pullar, a 2009 graduate from Colorado College, figured her studies in sociology and Spanish would help her get a job at a nonprofit. But after months of fruitless searching, she tapped into her savings, went to Madrid and got certified to teach English as a foreign language. After returning in 2010, she landed a temporary position with a community health outreach program, interviewing Hispanic clients.

The job lasted four months. Eventually, she applied to AmeriCorps, the national organization that channels volunteers to local nonprofits, and headed to work at a youth-development program in New York. But as her year of service winds down, she’s bracing for another brutal job hunt. “I was not prepared for the difficulty in finding a job after graduating in 2009,” she says. “I now understand exactly what the ‘economic downturn’ means in terms of finding meaningful, challenging employment.”

For the 4.8 million undergraduates who received bachelors’ degrees during the toughest years of the downturn — 2008, 2009 and 2010 — it’s especially tough. Experts say those who received their degrees a few years ago will have a hard time competing with grads that come after them. For these lost grads, the impact can be disastrous. But the consequences are likely to ripple through the broader economy: Employers are missing out on the contributions of well-educated, vital employees, just as baby boomers start counting on a younger workforce to support them during retirement.

“Employers favor most recent
grads. If you graduated two years
ago, you’re going to have a very
difficult time getting hired
by a Fortune 500 company.”

The statistics are grim: Only 19 percent of 2009 grads who were seeking employment had accepted an offer before they finished school, according to The National Association of Colleges and Employers. By comparison, 51 percent of the class of 2007 had a job before getting their diploma. For those under age 25 with a college degree, the unemployment rate is 9.6 percent, compared with 4.4 percent for older grads, according to Heidi Shierholz, a labor economist with the Economic Policy Institute. That doesn’t include grads who are working as baristas to pay the bills. “It’s a huge nightmare,” says Shierholz. “It is a misfortune to be born at a time that dumps you into this kind of labor market.”

That misfortune is likely to be deep and long-lasting. Grads that started their careers during the recession of the early 1980s had lower salaries for at least 17 years than those who entered the workforce in a stronger economy, according to a 2003 study by Yale economist Lisa B. Kahn. And the employment picture is even darker now than during previous recessions. Because the U.S. economy has shed 7 million jobs since the recession started in December 2007, Shierholz figures that the Great Recession will hang over the early careers of a 15-year cohort, those born between 1984 and 1998. And that’s assuming we get back to pre-recessionary levels of employment within five years – a fairly optimistic projection.

Damaged Goods
And even though college hiring has improved slightly in the last two years, grads from a few years ago aren’t likely to benefit. Not only do they have to compete for positions with the 2.1 million older college graduates who are currently unemployed, they also have to worry about younger grads. College-educated workers with little professional experience may seem interchangeable, but job placement experts say that’s not the way it works. “Employers favor most recent grads,” says Steven Rothenberg, founder ofCollegeRecruiter.com, the big Internet job board. Rothenberg says his company sees twice as many job seekers who have been out of school for a year or more as they did five years ago. “If you graduated two years ago,” he says, “you’re going to have a very difficult time getting hired by a Fortune 500 company.”