There was a time in the 19th century when citizens came together, believing they could manifest their own destinies. That belief led them to success. And now the same not only can be true but has to be true for twentysomethings. If not, what will become of us in this down economy?
A few basic stats give a glimpse of the bleakness young Americans face. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for 18- to 24-year-olds is twice the national average; it reached a whopping 18.1 percent this past July. To put this in historical context, during the severe 1973-1975 recession, the unemployment rate for 18- to 24-year-olds peaked at 16.1 percent. Though the unemployment rate for 25- to 29-year-olds is less grim, it is still more than a percentage point greater than the national average. But what is terrifying is that there are roughly 3.1 million job openings and 14 million Americans looking for employment.
Translation: It is a battlefield out there for kids who have fancy degrees with no “real world” experience competing against seasoned adults.
This frequently leaves many twentysomethings fighting almost day and night for good jobs or any job at all. Many of the lucky ones are becoming sales associates, baristas, etc. — jobs that do not require a college degree. The unlucky ones have been sending out 10 resumes a day, exhausting their networks and pounding the pavement for over a year but are still unemployed. Many of them are simply raising white flags, opting to wait it out, thinking they are victims of bad timing.
Take me, for example. I have been doing whatever it takes to succeed in my chosen industry (surprise, it is journalism!). My low was probably renting a room with holes in the walls in a house where garbage decorated the lawn and drug dealers were quite possibly living under the same roof. Why? I did not want to sign a lease because I wanted to have as much flexibility as possible in my job search.
Eventually, I landed a good administrative job at a respected cable news network in the Big Apple. But just to get the position, I had to work countless hours for free to prove that I could do it, dip into my limited savings to pay for the move and forgo a social life and sleep for months. It was not easy.
And, truthfully, being an assistant was not my dream first job. Not at all. In fact, I graduated from an elite New England college with a high GPA in less than four years while holding down leadership positions and extremely competitive journalism internships, all to avoid such a job, naively thinking I was above admin work.
So, my “dream” did not play out as planned, but I am living out a different one with an unknown ending — an ending that I believe is just as bright as the one I had envisioned for myself.
But many do not see it this way. The legendary Tom Brokaw recently noted that he frequently hears, “I’m afraid my kids won’t have the same life that I have,” while the few articles on this topic contain depressing lines, such as perhaps we are “a generation that is lost in limbo” and that many “have literally lost their futures.”
We cannot allow the latter to be true, or we are all doomed. Moms across the country will still be folding their 30-year-old sons’ underwear!
The “full-nest syndrome” is becoming more and more common, as twentysomethings are moving back home in record numbers. For instance, roughly 85 percent of the class of 2011 returned home after graduation, while a 2010 Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor poll found that 26 percent of 25- to 29-year-olds were living with their parents or other relatives.
The free laundry service sounds great, but it actually has severe consequences. Those living at home are more likely to be unemployed, and unemployment can lead to a life full of self-doubt and lack of drive. Or at least this was the experience of workers who joined the labor force during the Great Depression.
Many of my peers, who are either unemployed, underemployed or partially employed, have also tried to convince themselves and the outside world that they are happy to use this time to find themselves by starting rock bands, writing, painting, cooking, etc. But from talking one-on-one with many of them, I know that they are already suffering from a lack of confidence, and many are quietly mad as hell. When they do speak up, it is painful how uninformed they are.
For instance, many of the youths camping out at Occupy Wall Street are not armed with the facts. I asked several randomly selected twentysomethings at Zuccotti Park how President Barack Obama’s jobs plan would benefit them, and they could not tell me, admitting they did “not know what is in it.” When I asked them how they thought we should fix the economy, they also did not have a clue. An anonymous 24-year-old from Salt Lake City, Utah, who purchased an airplane ticket on his mom’s credit card to make it to the protest, attempted to answer and said that we should vote our leaders out but sheepishly muttered he did not go to the ballots in 2010.
This sent me on a mission, polling protesters between the age of 20 and 29 to see how many exercised their right to vote. Of the 34 protesters that I asked, only 48 percent voted in 2008 and 2010, and many in the remaining 52 percent said that they did not plan on voting in 2012, giving various reasons, such as “it does not do anything anyway” and “there is no one good to vote for.” If they feel so disenchanted, they could put up one of their own! Candidates for the House of Representatives only have to be 25-years-old.
But voting and running a candidate alone is not going to solve all of the economic problems for this age group.
The greatest thing all twentysomethings could do is band together, pledging to be informed citizens who will effectively and continuously work toward having a prosperous future. So, pledge right here in the comment section that you will wake up every morning, arming yourselves with the facts, that you will keep looking for a “good” job, and most importantly that you will not — under any circumstance — retreat from obtaining that bright future you envisioned for yourself. Together, we can, and we must.
Caroline Gransee is a twentysomething-year-old writer living in New York. She has worked for NBC and CNN and is currently in the publishing world.