News >> Browse Articles >> Hiring & Career Trends


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

Stacks is hardly alone. There are roughly 2 million Americans over 25 who have at least a bachelor’s degree and are unemployed. Nationwide, the jobless rate for college graduates in that category is double what it was before the recession. In fact, 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.

And yet it’s still very much the case that those with more education have a lower rate of unemployment. According to the most recent data available, for those 25 years and older who didn’t finish high school, the unemployment rate is 14 percent. For those with only a high school diploma but not a college degree, it drops to 10.3 percent. For those with some college or a two-year degree, it falls to 8.7 percent.

Still, for Stacks and many others of his generation, the old “go to school, get a job” mantra sounds hollow. Fifty years ago, 77 percent of women and 65 percent of men had attained traditional markers of maturity by their thirtieth birthday: They had left home, finished school, gotten a job, married, and started a family. By 2005, those numbers had almost halved. Now, a new crop of 20-somethings is experiencing what it’s like to be young and ambitious and unable to find work, or work that in any way aligns with what they’re passionate about. As a recent New York Times Magazine story made clear, early adulthood has become one long pause, affecting not only short-term, conventional milestones of coming of age, but longer-term stuff, too—things like the hopes and dreams and basic constitution of a person.

Of those who continue to slog through, many can’t help but wonder how long this indefinite pause can possibly last.

Few people right out of college expect that their first job will be the ideal one. Neither did Stacks. But he also didn’t expect that he would be the only person in his entire company to crack open a book during their 30-minute lunch break.

Andrew Sum, an economics professor at Northeastern University, where he directs the Center for Labor Market Studies, has discovered that many college graduates are falling back on jobs that don’t require a college degree: waiting tables, bartending, working in retail. Using federal labor statistics, Sum has found that of the more than 2 million college graduates under the age of 25, about 700,000 have a job that doesn’t require a degree. And while unemployment and the lack of full-time jobs are problems, Sum says that having a job for which one is overqualified is worse. People with a job that does not require a degree—even if they have one—earn up to 40 percent less than college graduates whose jobs require their schooling. What’s worse, the longer one spends in a non-degree job, the less likely one is to ever join the college-educated labor force.

And the economic effects aren’t temporary. Lisa Kahn, an economist at Yale’s School of Management, tracked the wages of white men who graduated from college before, during, and after the 1980s recession. Over a 20-year period, those who graduated in the peak of the recession earned $100,000 less than those who finished college before or after the economic downturn.

“Young college graduates are vastly underutilized. They go ahead and complete school and we don’t have anything to offer them once they’re out,” says Sum, referring to the young college graduates who are without work. In the more than 20 years that he’s been studying the issue, Sum says that the current downturn has negatively affected young people the most—and not just in terms of their take-home pay. For some people, the recession has forever altered perceptions of how the world works, creating the impression that success has more to do with luck than with hard work.