Being jobless in the Great Recession is about much more than making ends meet. While we struggle to pay every bill, we — the freshly minted unemployed — carry around psyches that have come undone in ways that we never expected. I should know. I am in my twenties. Educated. Hard-working. Intellectually proactive. And unable to find a job.
I often find solace playing the blame game: If it weren’t for those baby boomers and their Great Society, I never would have been convinced that if I did everything I was supposed to do in life and played by (most of) the rules, one day I would be successful — or at least employed. In high school, I woke up early, did my homework, studied for exams and participated in extracurriculars I wasn’t always very good at, following a grueling schedule that was exhausting and not always rewarding. I remember justifying my heavy schedule because I wanted to get into a good college. I enjoyed college, but I still worked hard and did plenty of things I didn’t want to because in the back of my mind lingered the self-righteous idea that someone like me would naturally be rewarded with a good job.
But here I am, three years after graduation, and it seems that I was wrong.
After months and months of job interviews, I’ve gone from the jobless-can-be-liberating phase into the feeling-bad-for-myself/coping phase. Which leads me back to the baby boomers. I confess that I’m torn up by the idea that my generation has taken a giant step back from what that previous generation was able to expect and achieve in life. Those of us that are fortunate enough to have jobs will never, it seems, have the same opportunities our parents did. Our salaries will never be as high, despite the higher cost of living. If we get jobs at all.
I hear strange and sad stories about what twenty-somethings are doing in the wake of the downturn. Many of my peers are fortunate enough to escape reality through graduate degrees, but as much as I would like to go back to school, the thought of adding tens of thousands more to my already soaring debt is nauseating. And by the way, why didn’t anyone tell me going to college meant crushing debt I would struggle to pay off, even with a good job?
My generation is getting desperate dealing with bright futures that have turned dismal. Those of us who already have loans are pretty much left high and dry. After getting a job and prompting losing it, I called Citibank, the evil beekeeper of my private loans, they “generously” gave me a two-month forbearance. Now that those two months are up, there is nothing they can do for me.
A student at Boston College Law School asked the dean for a tuition refund. In his letter, the student eloquently articulates many of the issues people in their twenties face:
To compound our difficulties, many of us are in an enormous amount of debt from our legal studies. Soon after our graduation, we will be asked to make very large monthly payments towards this debt, regardless of whether we’ve been able to find employment or not. It is a debt which, despite being the size of a mortgage, gives us no tangible asset which we could try to sell or turn in to the bank. We are not even able to seek the protection of bankruptcy from this debt.
Another desperate graduate started a website asking for donations to help her pay the $200,000 debt she has to start trying to pay back soon.
A friend of mine decided medical school was a stable career path. Her eventual job prospects may be better than others, but she is forced to keep going back for more loans to make rent and eat even though she works tirelessly at long, grueling shifts in a hospital. She pays thousands of dollars to get “paid in knowledge.” I can only hope it pays off for her in the end. Most of us have lost that assurance.
As the federal deficit grows, “fiscal conservatives” cry about how their children will be footing the bill for their recklessness. The irony is that we won’t even have anything to pay it with.
In an effort to make some money, I considered taking an administrative job a friend offered me. The job wasn’t a good fit in many ways. As I considered the favor and sought advice from friends and family, I kept revisiting this sense of entitlement that while it would have definitely helped pay some bills, it wasn’t what I wanted to be doing. It wasn’t going to make me happy, and it probably wouldn’t help my career in any way. Which brings me to another cynical point about my generation. Most of us that are educated are convinced that we are just too good for jobs we hate. This mentality is really difficult to shake even in the face of fiscal hardship.
Perhaps the most frustrating question of all remains: What can we do to make positive changes? I scan the job boards every day, submit applications, go to networking events — as I’m told, doing everything right. When did doing what’s right stop working? And more importantly, are we capable of adapting to the new landscape? Or is our fate in the hands of the global economy and the market’s ability to heal itself?
One thing I see is that success requires a high degree of originality and innovation. “There may not be many paying jobs available, but there are huge opportunities out there,” says Frank Beacham, a veteran journalist who has written specifically about what young journalists, like myself, can do for jobs in this period of media “reinvention.” Beacham says: “Rather than being discouraged about the future of media, young people should be optimistic about the unique time they live in. It’s a time to think boldly and creatively and ignore the old media that’s gradually dying around you.” He asserts what I have begun to sense: “It’s an excellent time for entrepreneurial journalists.”
Really it is an excellent time to be an entrepreneur at anything. As the New York Times recently put it, “The enthusiasm for social networking and mobile apps has venture capitalists clamoring to give money to young companies. The exuberance has given rise to an elite club of start-ups — all younger than seven years and all worth billions.”
Now I just wish I knew how to be entrepreneurial. The problem is — no one ever taught me that. I don’t believe that the word ever came up formally in any component of my education, which was so geared toward standardized testing that it was rare that I was challenged to think outside the box. The academic environment has grown so obsessed with testing that it is as if passing a test is the only reason to learn anything. The teach-to-the-test syndrome is the ultimate antithesis of being entrepreneurial.
In sum, the cards seems stacked high against me. I am such an optimist, but I wonder if there is anything about my professional or financial future that I can feel good about.
When I start to let my inner pessimist take hold, I look to my silver lining. I’m grateful every day for many positive forces, above all, the supportive, unconditional loving people I’m so fortunate to have in my life. I’m also thankful for the new people I meet that share their kindness, generosity and positive light in a world that can get a little too dark some days.
Here’s to hoping we already hit rock bottom, and there’s nowhere to go from here but up.
Lindsey Snyder is an unemployed journalist.