Life in the Unemployed Lane

As a graduate student secure in my university bubble during 2008 and ’09 it was vaguely disturbing to read of the subprime mortgage crisis and ensuing meltdown of the U.S. financial system. While the heart-wrenching reports of those who lost their houses, jobs, and credit were certainly alarming, they were tempered by the ill-comforting fact that while our systems collapsed all around us those of us in the university hardly felt any personal impact. Certainly we had relatives and acquaintances who lost life savings in the stock market, and a few friends who as the most recent hired quickly became the most recent fired at companies desperate to purge their payrolls and assure investors that everything was okay. But these were vague stories, whispered along the grapevine around us as we relaxed at with family during Thanksgiving break, or recuperated at home or on vacation with friends from our finals stress. It seemed bad, we fellow students conceded to each other in the lab or cafeteria, as the increasingly shrill media fervently shouted unemployment statistics and lack of consumer confidence; however it couldn’t be that bad, right? After all, we all still had our loans flowing in to pay our tuition and living expenses, and some of us had part-time jobs that gave us some cash. Plus, our ace-in-the-hole was our spiffy higher education degree – how could those shiny certificates fail to provide for us? Life was rough, but we were poor graduate students living the no-frills life and already accepting of the fact that we lived on credit – a fountain of easy wealth which unlike the majority of small business owners, prospective home buyers, and anyone else was not taken away from us.

And then we graduated. The day after we changed our tassels to the other side of our brims, threw our caps in the air, and recovered from drinking ourselves silly in celebration; we awoke ready to start finally earning some real money and become productive members of society. But instead our hangovers were accompanied by a double slap across the face with an absurdly high loan repayment plan and a devalued market for our degrees. The debt cycle college and post-graduate students fall into after finishing the university has been widely documented: in 2008 almost 70% of graduating seniors received loan repayment plans for their debt along with their diplomas; and the average nationwide debt was $23,200. This represents a 24% increase since 2004 (Project on Student Debt, 2010), and if you throw in graduate school debt as well it’s very easy for numerous students starting their careers with forty to sixty thousand dollars of debt (if you go to law or medical school, this is the bottom end of the loan spectrum). While young people do plenty of stupid things with their money, the issues isn’t mismanagement. The issue is sharply rising tuition costs: for example, tuition at all the University of California schools rose 32% in one year, and is 300% of what it used to be 10 years ago (CBS News, 2010) many universities desperate to recoup losses from their plummeting portfolios and reduced public funding are unabashedly cutting education and student services, giving students a poorer quality educational experience yet charging them vastly more for it.

However the classes of 2008, 2009, and 2010 get to enjoy an extra kick in the gut – not only are we paying more for our degrees, thanks to the financial crisis our hard-earned diplomas are worth significantly less in the job market. For example, the average salary of a graduate with any bachelor’s degree fell by about $1,000 from last year. While some engineering and computer science majors are getting slightly more for their degrees, this is tempered by the decline of other majors including liberal arts, which fell from an average starting salary last year of $36,445 down to $32,555 this year; or an 11 percent decrease (Examiner, 2010). And the cherry on top is since no one is hiring, people with masters degrees and/or years of experience who are highly overqualified are applying for these entry-level positions!

For all that is ballyhooed about unemployment statistics, very little is said about underemployment stats. Underemployment occurs when someone who is overqualified ends up working in a position that does not need their high skill set, resulting in inefficiency. And economists, some of the same precocious ones who for years assured us that our markets and financial systems were sound, snidely point out that underemployment is another trend of a recession.

But to be perfectly clear, I am not trying to say that being underemployed is worse than unemployed. My heart goes out to those who have no employment, rising bills and costs, and decreasing financial resources to pay for them. These people in general have become doormats of our toxic system, unwitting victims guilty only of wanting the American consumer dream and believing credit agents when they were told they could have it, all for a low monthly payment plan.

However it’s still hard to not have a sense of indignation when filling out application after application for entry-level positions when I possess three degrees (I double-majored in college) and have paid over $50,000 in tuition. All of us graduating have not only impeccable grades, but loads of extracurricular activities, work experience, and polished references. Yet the job landscape is as barren as the Sahara. Several friends who returned to graduate school specifically to work in local government have given up, conceding that with the hiring freeze most cities and counties are wielding as a suture for the hemorrhaging budget deficits it is better to work elsewhere temporarily rather than wait it out. Most universities are in the same boat. Many large non-profits advertise that the best way to get a foot in the door is to work an unpaid internship for an indeterminate period of time and hope an opening in your specialization pops up (never mind about how to actually pay for living expenses on top of tuition loan payments during that period of free work). Those desiring work in the corporate sector can find jobs, albeit at a much lower salary than before and in a market that more values actual work experience over a fluffy degree.

Plus, there’s the demoralizing waiting game. I would much prefer an instant, professional rejection of my application than what has increasingly become more and more common: a month-long or more suspenseful wait until finally one of your repeated inquiries digs up either one of several possible alternatives: due to the billions of applications received for this position the process is taking much longer than anticipated (most likely); your application has been rejected but the organization felt no need to inform you of this fact (second most likely); or any number of bizarre scenarios in which the position had already been filled even before the announcement was sent out, the open job became a victim of the budget and vanished off the face of the earth, or the organization apparently self-destructed because emails and phone calls to every single person listed on their website are ignored. To be fair, a large cause behind this sick cycle is that many organizations have cut back their H.R. departments at the very time in which they have become besieged with reams of applications for any open position.

The disappointing thing about this situation (well, okay there are a lot more than just one) is that local governments, universities, and non-profits are exactly the institutions that need these recently graduated, bright, articulate, and socially savvy students. Degrees are becoming more and more interdisciplinary to reflect the entrenched problems facing our financial, social, and environmental systems; and rightfully so. Effective communication and management of these issues has drastically changed in just the last couple of years. Plus in the years to come, millions of baby boomers will be retiring and taking to their vacation pastures with them LARGE amounts of institutional knowledge. The time is now to get young and sophisticated workers into the workforce so they can begin the tasks needed to help their companies and organizations adapt to the ever-quicker changing world. This seems to make logical and smart institutional sense, but then again what do I know. I’m just another unemployed person skimming the want ads.

Note – this was written in 2010, and published in the Muir Beach Beachcomber in June 2011.