Monday, May 21, 2012

Another Lost Generation

We may well be another lost generation. The first Lost Generation struggled through a World War in Europe only to feel disillusioned and uncertain for the future. Soldiers, ambulance drivers, and nurses all returned to a very changed country. The lost generation I inhabit has had to live in the shadows of a new American reality. No longer can hard work and ingenuity alone provide a stable paycheck or substantial livelihood for anyone. What passes for the American dream is a supreme fiction.

The fortunate in this age are well-connected and lucky enough to not slip through the cracks. Those with jobs either possess the exact skills and precise training to suit fickle employers, or they find themselves consigned to occupational Purgatory. In a buyer's market, those hiring can afford to wait for the perfect fit in every way, shape, and fashion. Whether they attended a liberal arts college or a state school, graduated with honors or not, few applicants find their skills in demand.

Often they have had to borrow money from parents to stay afloat. Returning home to the womb for a few tours of duty, also known as their parent’s house is all too uncommon. We've been sold a bill of goods. Everything we were told was factual and true is totally wrong.

To best illustrate my point, I thought I might now tell the stories of a few of my friends. Each is in his or her late 20’s into the early 30’s and lives in Washington, DC. Though economists have told us that we are in recovery, whatever that means, it surely doesn’t feel like it to us. We’ve had to be creative in marketing ourselves to employers who can afford to be picky.

We’ve had to accept the subtle, but essential details that mean the difference between employment and unemployment. It’s humbling, to say the least to learn how worthless our educational training, resumes, and prior work experience can be. Twisting ourselves into pretzels for the sake of fitting into a narrowly defined skill set might as well be our stock in trade. When we’ve finally found employment, we’ve often taken jobs completely at odds with the work to which we assumed we would give our lives. We had absolutely no say in the matter.

One of my friends was hired by a non-profit right out of college. She enjoyed the work immensely, but knew her tenure was time-limited from the beginning. Contract work has become more and more prevalent with employers who wish to keep costs down. She spent the next eighteen months out of work, diligently searching for a job.

Employment finally arrived in the form of a Federal Government job in the same field as before. However, her new employer worked exclusively in policy, a complicated profession, to say the least, one she had never before even contemplated. On-the-job training was a necessity and, to her, the experience reminded her of cramming for the toughest examination she’d ever taken in her life.

Another friend spent about the same length of time on the unemployment rolls. He, too, found a job with the Federal Government, the only offer he was given. Within a few months of working there, he discovered that upper level management was highly incompetent and the agency itself was badly run. The institutionalized dysfunction influenced hiring practices and compromised morale. His co-workers were not adequately vetted before starting work and routinely were entirely unsuited for the nature of the work.

He dealt with all of it as long as possible, and then tendered his resignation three weeks ago. Once again unemployed, he has two months’ worth of savings to tide him over until he begins another one. Because he voluntarily resigned, unemployment compensation was flatly denied. He has filed an appeal and waits nervously for a decision.

Still another friend graduated after four years from a prestigious university, one with the most expensive tuition in the country. After periods of chronic underemployment, she has now achieved full-time work, but with severe strings attached. Her wages are low, granting her the ability to survive, though without the income she would really prefer. She spends everything she makes and laments the ability to be unable to save for a rainy day. Lacking health insurance, she worries about potential financial catastrophe should she need emergency medical treatment someday.

She’s been looking in frustration for another career for two months, having interviewed for two or three openings. Nothing seem to pan out in the end, a common denominator with the people in each of these stories. Each opening for which she obtains an interview draws a minimum of 100 applicants, most of whom have the identical qualifications she does. The odds are not exactly in her favor. I could tell at least ten more stories that follow the same basic frustrating trajectory.

Each of the persons mentioned above is highly qualified, highly educated, and struggling mightily to stay afloat. Place of origin does make a difference. Compounding the problem is that even in the best of times, Washington, DC, is an expensive place to live. Though booming in some sectors, our Nation’s Capital can be a stressful place for ambitious young adults.

Though a certain hyper-competitive quality is attached to the city by its very nature, employment opportunities nonetheless once existed in sufficient quantity. Now they do not. Regardless of how motivated and driven job seekers may be, they rapidly learn two particular truisms: 1. patience is a virtue and 2. there is no such thing as fair. For those in partnered relationships, the dynamics are slightly different, but related to those of singles. Often only one person holds down full-time work and functions as the primary breadwinner.

With heterosexual couples, the traditional gendered arrangement of a primary male breadwinner frequently reversed because of sheer necessity. Without the existence of dual incomes, sexism aside, the monetary imbalance can lead to tension within a relationship; one person often has to make a barely adequate inflow stretch for two. Should the sole source of money lose his or her job, a disaster would be left in its wake. 

What is often not discussed is that the Great Recession only exacerbated existing trends. For a decade or more before 2007, underemployment was the frequent lot of entry level workers who had just left college. Now, if recently published statistics are to be believed, 1 in 2 recent college graduates can expect to be unemployed upon entering the workforce. Living with one’s parents past college was once considered embarrassing and shameful: a denial of formal adulthood. The stigma may still be in place, but even achievers and hard workers have had to return to the nest when money is tight.

Allow me to make a sharp distinction. I am, of course, writing about a very particular group of people. All are white, each has been raised in middle class households, and each has also graduated from college with good grades. I imagine the climate is even worse for those who don’t have a certain amount of financial support, parental support, and privilege to back it up. For those without the good fortune of these material advantages, the future is even more uncertain, confusing, and difficult. Across the country, young men and women have similar stories to tell. No one knows how much longer we will exist in a state of fiduciary limbo.

Politicians promise recovery, but no one yet has provided a coherent plan. Recent Congressional efforts to reduce if not altogether eliminate financial aid debt will help, but they don’t address the primary problem. Where are the jobs? The forthcoming Presidential election will swing to a large extent on that very issue.

Until change comes to America, young adults will be unable to invest in their country. Until then, we sit and wait, soldiering along because we have no choice but to accept a recession era lifestyle. We’re surprisingly far less aimless and directionless than often believed. Our needs will be surprisingly well met and our distress will be soothed by the simplest of acts; we want work and we want to feel worthwhile and productive.

We are the future leaders of this country, but unless we can get a firm toe-hold with our foot in the door, we aren’t doing anyone much good. One single campaign issue unifies us together, regardless of where we call home. When is it our turn to begin building a future?

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