Lisa and John have what we're told it takes to succeed. They're smart, they're college educated, they're hard workers. They're pleasant and attractive. They excelled in school. They've been together for a couple of years and expect their relationship to last. They worked through college and are consequently older than other recent graduates. They're ready to start their adult lives. And they can't find work. They represent a generation that feels cheated – they've discovered the American Dream is a lie.
I haven't used their real names or pictures so they could speak freely.
I haven't used their real names or pictures so they could speak freely.
“I've been out of school since December,” John said.
“I've been out of school since May,” Lisa said. “I've had two interviews before I graduated and three since I've graduated and no luck. In school I focused on interior design, both contract and residential. The interviews I got were residential and one was showroom. But there are about five computers it turns out I should know and I don't know. And that's preventing me from getting a job. So I have to figure out how to learn them.”
On her own dime and her own time, despite her degree?
“I have to see if I can download a trial version on my computer so I can get acquainted with them without spending the $500 these computer programs cost, see if I can figure it out on my own.”
Lisa's not the typical design school graduate. She's already been working in the field.
“I have three years of design experience, which is more than any of my classmates had. I graduated top of the class but there's not a lot out there for me. Everyone told me I was going to have a job without a problem, but I know there's no jobs out there. With all the design graduates coming into the field, I'm not surprised that there's slim pickings. I didn't know it would be as hard as it is and that there'd just be nothing out there.”
John and Lisa have been living in an apartment behind John's dad's house. Their situation has deteriorated to the point where they can't pay rent and they have to move back home.
“I'm working part time in a furniture store,” Lisa said. She laughed but it's clearly not funny. “For ten dollars an hour.”
John was recently hired by an Internet startup, also as a contract employee at ten dollars an hour.
“Prior to that I was finishing up my degree at night and working at a sports network on a part time basis. They call it a project employee – it's thirty hours a week, twelve dollars an hour. I was an editor so what I wrote went directly to six million subscribers nationwide. It was a position with a fixed duration and I knew the end was coming. My job ended in April of 2013, so in December 2012 I started sending out applications. I tried to send out five a week, ten a week. Between December 2012 and April 2013 I would say I'd sent out two hundred job applications, at least, to various places nationwide. Out of those two hundred applications I got one phone interview and one in-person interview. Finally in mid-August I applied at an Internet startup in New York. They hired me at ten dollars an hour for up to forty hours a week. After a week and a half they had promoted me to manager. After another half a week they decided that the position they'd promoted me to had to be based in New York City, which I couldn't afford to do. It had the promise of a reasonable salary in the future and some stock options in this new company, and it didn't work out so I'm back to square one.”
So how many hours a day does he spend looking for work?
“Probably three or four. But here's the thing – there are only so many jobs boards and so many jobs. Weekend days in particular are very slow for Craigslist, Indeed, Monster, whatever. You see a lot of the same jobs over and over. I've got experience that you'd think would help with sports teams, colleges, leagues, and I peruse those, too, but nothing. Before we met you today, I was on the computer for about an hour while my girlfriend was getting ready. I'll probably look some more tonight.”
I wondered if their friends are having similar struggles to find work.
“A lot of my girlfriends are still in school,” Lisa said. “They went back for their Masters. One of my friends is working in New York City, killing herself for no money, but she's able to live there with her boyfriend.”
“One of my friends was an accounting major and went for his MBA,” John said. “He ended up getting fired from his accounting job because he didn't really know how to do the job. This was a kid with a 3.9 GPA in college. You have to wonder how well the accounting program at our school prepared him for the real world.”
I speculated that both of them would probably prefer to start their own businesses at this point, as the job market isn't opening at all.
“You kind of become fed up with everything. Maybe if you take matters into your own hands you'll do better than trying to rely on other people. You've definitely thought of that,” Lisa said to John. “For me, as far as residential design goes, that's the only way to really do design work. You can find clients who are willing to spend money more easily than you can find businesses willing to spend money by hiring someone. One of the firms I interviewed with have cut their employees in half since the economic crisis started. Business has started to come back but they're not hiring new people. They're just having the people they have take on the extra work. I'm thinking maybe if I can find clients willing to spend money, that's the way to start. But that's tough as well because it seems like in the past couple of weeks spending has just stopped – no jobs posting the past few weeks, nothing really new to apply for since mid-August. I don't know if it's the government shutdown talk but the entire industry has just seemed to slow down.”
John has an idea for a business startup, but he's hit a different kind of wall. He has no capital.
“Good luck walking into a bank and asking for $500 thousand in seed money with $100 thousand in student debt hanging over your head and no work history to speak of. I have no illusions about it. That's life. You can't be self reliant because you can't get started being self reliant.”
John continued, “It is my opinion that a college education these days is the biggest scam in this country.”
“It's the most fiscally irresponsible thing you can do at this point, at our age,” Lisa agreed.
“Unless your parents can pay for it,” John continued, “you're crippling yourself for at least two decades. That's what I'm looking at, regardless of whether I get a job or not. Unless I magically get a job that pays six figures, there's no reasonable way I can expect to pay this down, so any idea I have to start out on my own just isn't feasible. Unless you get some kind of angel investor, and then it's like 'Okay, hope you know somebody.' “
“One of my other friends ended up leaving college,” John said. “He's managing a Domino's Pizza, making almost fifty thousand dollars a year. He's paying off his student loan and will completely debt free in the next three to four years. He makes more than most teachers in this country who have five times the education he does. It's not for everybody. I mean, I need my brain to be engaged. But he doesn't care what kind of work he does and once he's debt free he'll be able to do pretty much whatever he wants.”
Are they angry?
“Furious. Absolutely furious,” John said. “Because you're told your entire life, 'Go get that college degree and you'll be set up for the rest of your life.'”
“You'll be living the American Dream,” Lisa added. “And here we are.”
“It's a farce,” John concluded.
I wondered if they'd considered getting involved in politics or policy, to try to change a broken system.
“I was hoping when Obama got elected that things would get better,” Lisa said. “But I've so lost hope. I don't think one person can change it. I don't think it's a person in office, I think it's the entire system and I don't know how it can be fixed.”
“I would love to get involved in politics,” John said. “I've applied for jobs with policymakers. But again, how many applications can you send and how many non-responses can you get? And even if I could get a job working on policy, if it only pays twenty thousand a year I can't afford to live. I'm 26 years old and I've never actually had my own apartment away from a parent. Money is simultaneously the best and worst thing every conceived by man. It's great if you have it and it ruins your life if you don't.”
How far do they think they could go if they could just get started?
John looked thoughtful. “When I was in school I read this paper, sort of a socio-economic experiment. They went into a rural school, a suburban school and an urban school and asked the kids 'What do you want to be when you grow up?'” The answers were an indication of how much support they were getting at home, their confidence, their self-esteem, the effect of their environment. The inner city kids wanted to be a subway driver or something like that. The suburban kids wanted to be CEO of their own companies, a movie star, something like that. In the inner city it's either 'I want to be a star athlete and if not that, I just want to be able to pay the bills because my parents can't.' I'm from suburbia and I have those high aspirations, but I think those urban kids were more spot on, honestly. Their aspirations are way more realistic than anything I have. Do I believe that I could be a high powered CEO or President of the United States? Absolutely. Do I believe realistically that it's ever going to happen? Absolutely not.”
“That's the hardest part of this situation,” Lisa said. “You have to reconcile what you dreamt of when you were growing up to what can actually happen. It's hard not to get depressed by it. You have to completely re-evaluate the trajectory of your life, what you thought it was going to be, because it's not.”
Do their parents and other Baby Boomers understand?
“My mother showed me her tax information from when she was twenty,” said Lisa. “I was twenty, too, at the time and making three times what she was making while I was in school. She had a brand new car, no credit card debt, no student loan. She was fully self-supportive on six thousand dollars a year. I was making eighteen, but I was living at home, I could not even afford car repairs. With inflation and student loan debt, it's a completely different world. I try to talk to my dad about it and he doesn't get it.”
“He's helpful at least,” John added.
“Yes, but he just can't grasp what this reality is like for us.”
Simplistic thinking is this generation's enemy.
“I think the biggest misconception among the older generation is that we just have to get a job,” John said.
“Yeah, you're not working hard enough, stop whining,” Lisa said.
“It's just not that easy,” John continued. “I've applied to probably five hundred jobs in the past ten months. The number of actual interviews, traditional job interviews, I can count on one hand. I've had one job offer. And that blew up after two weeks. It's not a matter of working hard, not wanting it enough. I want to be doing more. I'm 26 years old. My parents had full time jobs and were married by the time they were 26 years old. It's a hard thing for me to stomach because I want that and I can't have that.”