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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

Loan debt is also a concern for Rachel Lieberman, 30, whose six-figure loan repayment for her joint master’s degrees in public health and business from the University of Michigan goes into repayment later this fall. After graduating in the spring, Lieberman spent a lot of time on her couch watching movies, recovering from two intense years of business school. The sudden abundance of free time was unsettling. “I’m someone who needs structure, who does better when I’m super busy than when I have nothing on my plate,” says Lieberman, who pays her rent by working part-time at 826 Michigan, a national nonprofit that helps students develop writing skills. If it weren’t for the 15 hours a week of work, she imagines she would resort to making jewelry and selling it on Etsy. For now, a combination of frugality and money saved from last summer’s paid internship helps make up the difference.

The emotional pressures are as difficult as the financial ones. “When the response is negative, it’s hard to constantly put yourself out there,” says Lieberman, who, after graduating from Grinnell College worked as a Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya. “What I miss most is feeling productive, that I’m a part of something larger than myself. It’s really hard not to have that.” What she also hates is waking up in the middle of the night, her heart pounding with anxiety.

Most days, Stacks leaves work and comes home to the upper-class neighborhood where he lives, feeling beaten down. While not all parts of his underemployment have been bad—Stacks has had time to read contemporary novels again, wade his way through the entire Criterion Collection of films, and has grown closer to his mother since moving back home—it isn’t easy for him to shake the sense that life as he’s living it won’t last forever. With his personal life on hold, not wanting to start a new relationship while living in his mother’s house, he tweaks his resume, writes cover letters with astonishing speed, and waits.

Despite all of the stories that Stacks reads that say he is hardly alone in his battle for meaningful employment, nearly all of his friends have jobs. Some are really successful. “It makes talking about it and hanging out with them, marveling at the size of their televisions and spacious kitchens, really difficult,” he says.

Last fall, a friend invited Stacks to a Halloween party where there would be a lot of people he didn’t know. After wavering on what sort of costume he should wear, he ended up not going. “I honestly had no idea to how to explain to people who I was and what I did,” says Stacks. “And maybe I still don’t.”

Illustrations by Graham Roumieu.