The Underclass of 2008: Born at the Wrong Time

The Underclass of 2008: Born at the Wrong Time

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Ever since I entered the workforce after graduating from college in 2008, I’ve managed to work – but only in low-wage, part-time service jobs that have paid no more than $20,000 a year. While I know I’m lucky to have a job compared to millions of people who can’t find any work today, I also know that the $10.30 hourly wage I earn doesn’t get me close to achieving the American dream.

I’m struggling to climb out of a steep hole, which includes a student debt load of $40,000.

A report a few days ago said that the majority of jobs added during the economic recovery are low-paying. “The overarching message is we don’t just have a jobs deficit; we have a ‘good jobs’ deficit,’’ said Annette Bernhardt, policy co-director at the National Employment Law Project, the liberal research and advocacy group that produced the report. I know what she means – my generation is living it.

While in college, I dreamed of a great career and worked hard toward it. I wanted to make my mark in the advertising industry. At no point did I think I would be working in a low-wage retail setting four years after graduation

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I live in New York City, which has a high cost of living, but it’s where I need to be because – as all “Mad Men” fans know – it’s the advertising hub of the country. To offset expenses, I share living space in a modest neighborhood with five other people. Even then, I pay far more in rent than the suggested one-third of my monthly income. Almost all the people I live with are in the same boat – and we’re all repaying college loans as well.

After we pay rent, food and bills, there is virtually no other income left over for a whole host of things – including medical care, retirement savings, savings for a home, additional education to improve ourselves – or any so-called “extras,” such as recreational activities or modest vacations. And forget getting married and having kids, at least for now.

Most people in my position know that we can’t even afford to take time off. While my retail job offers “vacation days,” they only pay at about half the usual wage – putting me at an instant deficit if I take them. It’s a sad fact of life for those in my position that we often miss special events like weddings and holidays.

Like so many young Americans with hopes and dreams, I want a better life. I want better pay, better benefits, and a real career. I’ve been on an almost constant search for professional employment for several years but am not there yet.

It’s true I’ve gained new skills in the jobs I’ve had: I’ve managed product supply chains, worked with inventory systems, and sharpened my communication skills. I’ve dealt with an internal team, an external set of representatives, with professionals at all levels, including buyers, designers and company presidents – demonstrating an ability to grow and contribute.

Professional development like this, in some lines of work, would conceivably be linked to pay raises, promotions or other forms of advancement. That’s not necessarily the case in the service sector. People call us “unskilled.” I see no such thing. Retail or other service workers need definite skill sets to perform their tasks. Critical thinking, organizational skills, problem solving ability, creativity, patience, forthrightness, empathy, and most of all, perseverance – these  are all vital to success in retail. Unfortunately, employers reward these qualities and efforts far less frequently in the hourly-wage service sector than they do in loftier positions.

The notion of raising the minimum wage is fraught with political and economic implications. People say, “How can we pay for that when we’re already bankrupt?” Or: “If we raise the rate, then we’d have to let more workers go.” But the brutal reality for me and millions like me is that we need a rate of pay about double what it is today.

In two years of work at my current employer, I’ve received two pay increases: Combined, these “raises” equal thirty cents per hour, for a total of about $400  a year. Pay increases aren’t regularly given in the retail world – in fact, they’re often denied or reduced. Punch the clock one second after the scheduled start time and even the one “tardy” can cost us an annual pay raise. 

We’re  not asking for handouts. But we need to be able to  pay our living expenses, have  –adequate health care coverage, and  take a break once in a while to rest and recharge – without losing income.

If those of my generation seem cynical and disaffected, it isn’t because we’ve given up on the idea of a fruitful, happy life. We know the meaning of hard work and we don’t shy away from it. But it has become clear that in our working life, our sacrifices – at least right now – are offering too little a reward.

Am I in financial hardship? Yes. Am I working as hard as I can toward the American Dream? Yes, I think I am. My question is: When will the hardship end?