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Young, Educated, and Unemployed: A New Generation of Kids Search for Work in their 20s

Young, Educated, and Unemployed: A New Generation of Kids Search for Work in their 20s

October 13, 2010

The Lost Generation: What it’s like for 20-somethings to go in search of meaningful work—and not find it.

Since January, for 35 hours a week, at a rate of $10 an hour, Luke Stacks has been working for a home-electronics chain. He answers the phone and attempts to coax callers into buying more stuff. This is not how he imagined he would be spending his late 20s.

Like a lot of us, Stacks was given a fairly straightforward version of how his life would unfold: He would go to college and study something he found interesting, graduate, and get a decent job. For a while, things went pretty much according to plan. Stacks, who now is 27, went to the University of Virginia, not far from where he grew up, majoring in American Studies. He later enrolled in a Ph.D. program at the University of Iowa, with the eventual goal of becoming a professor.

Flash forward to the fall of 2008, when the stock market crashed. There were never enough jobs for newly minted Ph.D.s to begin with, and now the likelihood of landing a tenure-track teaching position in the humanities was slim. Academia stopped looking like such a sure bet and Stacks grew disenchanted with his program. Even if he were to finish his doctorate, he reasoned, a job was in no way guaranteed to follow. He wondered, “How bad could it really be out there?” Turns out, it’s pretty bad.

So, in May of 2009, equipped with a master’s degree and a decent amount of courage, Stacks changed course. Shortly after graduation, he moved back in with his mother, who lives in Chantilly, Virginia. And from a desk in his bedroom, still littered with childhood toys and posters, Stacks started over.

What confronted him was not exactly pleasant. What once thrilled him—curating museum exhibits, making comic books, being a curious person—now seemed to make little financial sense. “I’m not confident that schooling has a direct connection with employment anymore,” he says. “But if I hadn’t received the kind of education I did, I would be less of an active citizen and less engaged in the world in ways I would not have discovered on my own.” And while passion and intellectual curiosity can’t be measured in dollars and cents, he expected they might at least secure a paycheck.

The unemployment rate among workers with at least a college degree is the highest it has been since the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking such data, in 1970.

As time passed, Stacks’s confidence flagged. “It’s the hardest thing in the world to write another cover letter about your great accomplishments if you question every day the greatness of your accomplishments,” he says.