US no longer the land of opportunity for the 'screwed generation'


THE US:The prospects are grim for young people, with many forced to lower their expectations

DAN KELLY works for free. By day, at least. By night, he works in catering – a surprisingly well-paying job “considering how unskilled it can be”, he confesses. “I make $35 an hour as a manager, so I can afford to live in the city.”

Originally from Seattle, Kelly now lives in New York, where he interns at a literary agency. For two years he has tried – and failed – to find paid work doing something that makes use of his English literature degree. “I’ve applied for many, many jobs – too many to count,” he writes in an email, as he is too busy to meet.

In addition to his two jobs, he writes articles for a sports website (also unpaid). “[My internship] was probably the 20th or 30th unpaid internship . . . I had applied for,” he continues.

Kelly graduated from Loyola Marymount University in 2006, not long before the US economy started to go belly-up. He was 22, and wanted to be writer.

After a failed attempt in the business, he took off for New Zealand and came up with a new plan. But when he returned, 18 months later, he felt he had missed his window. “I wanted to get some humble position at a newspaper or a publishing house. I couldn’t find a thing.”

Eventually, admitting defeat for a second time, Kelly travelled around South America for another 18 months before moving to New York. “I was determined that this time I would find a job in publishing.”

He is still looking for that job.

Kelly could be waiting for some time for the economy to pick up. “Ten to 15 years may be optimistic,” says Washington DC-based labour economist Heidi Shierholz. “That’s an estimate based on data from previous downturns. The downturn of the early 1980s was the only one even close to approaching the severity of this recession. This [has been] far, far, far worse in terms of length and severity.”

The only good news for people like Kelly is that workers with a university degree are more likely to find a job than those without. It is just unlikely that the job will require the four years of study, and tens of thousands of dollars, invested in it. “At least those with college degrees have somewhere to downgrade to,” says Shierholz. “If you just have a high-school diploma, you get downgraded right off the ladder.”

The numbers paint a grim picture for young people seeking work here. Almost 15 per cent of those in the 20-24 age bracket are out of work. For 16- to 19-year-olds, there is a one-in-four chance they cannot find a job.

In keeping with the American penchant for naming generations, the New York Times has labelled this one “generation limbo”. Newsweek goes a step further, branding them “the screwed generation”. But what of the prestigious Ivy Leaguers – surely they have the where-with-all to dodge the same bullets?

Not so for Alexandra Dalferros (25), one of the privileged set, having attended Columbia University in New York. She graduated with a degree in Asian studies in 2009. Last year she earned $25,000 (€19,300) working for a HIV/Aids advocacy group – roughly half the cost of one year’s tuition at Columbia.

“I was also working at a Thai restaurant in the city,” she says.

Last month, Dalferros moved to Bangkok after two years of trying to make it work in the Big Apple. “I never really felt I was doing what I really wanted to be doing [in New York],” she says. “The kinds of jobs that I would have really liked to do – in cultural or NGO or other non-profit areas – just aren’t there right now.

“A lot of people I know are doing jobs they never thought they’d do. Working in the service industry when you have a college degree can feel degrading.”

Elizabeth Schroeder (23) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, made a different choice. After graduating with a degree in accounting from the University of Northern Iowa in 2011, she spent six months looking for a job in her field.

“I was told over 30 people had applied for one entry-level accounting job in one day,” she says. “If you really want to get a position in your major field you have to be willing to move.”

Opting instead to stay put, Schroeder “downgraded” and took a job as a bank teller for $10 an hour. “It’s definitely not anything I had in mind,” she concedes, cheerily. “I saw myself going into accounting but when I wasn’t being offered any positions I figured I would start at a lower level and move up.”

So far, the plan is working. Schroeder now makes $13 an hour as a “lead teller” and hopes to be promoted again soon. She has no student debt, but lives with her parents to save money. “I could probably live on my own but I’d be living pay cheque to pay cheque.”

Regardless of the label you slap on it, this generation is facing a tough slog. Shierholz sums it up: “In any given graduating class some of them will have great jobs, some will have terrible outcomes and some will be in between. It’s just that the great job – the great ‘match’ – is rare now.”

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