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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

For Stacks in particular, the most severe toll hasn’t been a loss of income, but feelings of estrangement and isolation. It’s fair to say that Stacks doesn’t exactly have a lot in common with his coworkers. Many are still in high school. Most of the older ones haven’t gone to college. In general, Stacks veers away from conversations about his education or the number of degrees he has acquired, worried that they’ll think less of him because of it—or worse, think that he thinks he’s better than they are.

Despite his best efforts, the details of his past life have slowly seeped out. “People kept asking me, ‘If you have a master’s degree and you went to UVA, why are you here? Shouldn’t you be somewhere else? Shouldn’t you be more successful than you are?’” The answers don’t come easily. “My younger coworkers want my advice but they think my advice probably isn’t worth that much since we ended up in the exact same place and they don’t have a college education, let alone a master’s.”

So if college doesn’t guarantee a path toward upward mobility, is it even necessary? And what about if you already have a job: Is it better to just stay put, forgo a raise, and simply hope that things eventually get better?

Some recent graduates aren’t yet ready to settle for a version of life that is less than what they had imagined. When looking for work, the line that Kristen Vockel draws is this: Could she have done it before graduating from college, like the jobs she worked during summers while she was in school—at a call center, a movie theater, a dollar store? Vockel, now 22, moved back home to Florence, New Jersey, after graduating from New York University in May. She still lives off $3,000 she received as a graduation gift, hoping it can tide her over until she finds something she feels qualified to do. “Overqualified, underqualified—I’m never the right amount qualified,” says Vockel, describing the sentiment that she and many of her classmates share. Recently, she took on an unpaid internship that she can do from home, promoting a new online talk show, in hopes of padding her resume. Meanwhile the search continues, with Vockel more than willing to settle for something “really low-level,” if only she could find it.

“It was nice to have a break at first, but at this point I’m bored,” says Vockel, who goes to bed late and wakes up even later. “The glamour of being able to do whatever you want wears off pretty quickly.” To say nothing of the financial burden she’s facing. With $30,000 in student-loan debt, $1,200 to pay off on her credit card, not to mention the burden of putting pressure on her already financially strained single mother, Vockel is slowly changing the way she thinks about the future. With loan payments due in December, she has thought about bartending a few nights a week to make some extra money. She echoes the sentiments of Stacks and others: “Why did I bother taking all of those tests and writing all of those papers and working so hard all of those years if I just have to go back to working the same jobs I worked before?”