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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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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (7+ / 0-)

    I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I lead you in, some one else would lead you out. - Eugene Debs.

    by cabaretic on Mon May 21, 2012 at 04:36:35 AM PDT

  •  I am afraid your friend (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    cassandracarolina, DMLjohn

    is out of luck with unemployment. You get unemployment if you are laid off or fired not if you voluntarily leave your job. Hence the reason most to don't up and resign without something else waiting for them.

    Republican Family Values: Using the daughters from your first wife to convince everybody that your second wife is lying about your third wife.

    by jsfox on Mon May 21, 2012 at 04:59:10 AM PDT

  •  I think the door you want a toehold (3+ / 0-)

    in is not your best bet.  That's the dying economy.  Your generation will be the small business owners of a non-corporate-giant economy.  It's what Obama is betting on, which is the reason for simplifying and funding the SBA.  It's the reason for the emerging businesses initiatives.

    The job environment you're stuck with started in the '70's.  I live in a small town that's populated by people of my generation who flunked "corporate" and left cities to start pie companies and rock shops and restaurants and video stores and book stores and dry cleaners and whatever made sense to them.  They're the job creators here.  They aren't wealthy, but they're successful doing what they love.

    My town is the future of American enterprise.  No big boxes, few franchises. Corporate America is on life support.  You can help them out the door by building a new model.

    I'm not looking for a love that will lift me up and carry me away. A love that will stroll alongside and make a few amusing comments will suffice.

    by I love OCD on Mon May 21, 2012 at 06:29:54 AM PDT

  •  First jobs: baby boomer edition (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    greengemini, DMLjohn, joe wobblie

    My first job out of college in 1974 was working as a telemarketer for a scientific products company. As an introverted phone-phobic person, it was a living hell, but I learned valuable skills that have assisted me throughout the rest of my 37-year-so-far career.

    Our whole group was laid off four months later, and it took me four months to find another job. My dad lost his aerospace job at the same time. As brilliant and hard-working as he was, this showed me that

    The next job I got was reviewing field data; the work was so tedious I literally drove home in tears from the frustration. I remained in that job for two years, progressing to an almost equally tedious job supervising others doing the same task.

    It wasn't until 5 years into my career that I began doing work in my degree field. In the intervening decades, I have had some great years, some adequate years, and gotten laid off and cut back in hours.

    Long story short: perhaps by your standards, my career got off to a slow start. I should have moved on. I worked for some real idiots. The work wasn't challenging. I should have expected more. I was barely making enough money for my 1-bedroom apartment and used VW. But through my work, I met the people who would be instrumental to my future success.

    Today, I am doing quite well by middle-class standards. I've had the chance to do pioneering work in my field, collaborate with fantastic colleagues, travel, put my step-kids through college, give back to my profession and the world around me, and build my eventual retirement home and hope to move there in two years.

    Measuring your worth by your initial years in the workplace isn't a winning strategy, nor is thinking that you are part of a lost generation.

    Some drink deeply from the river of knowledge. Others only gargle. -- Woody Allen

    by cassandracarolina on Mon May 21, 2012 at 07:47:42 AM PDT

    •  Well what else can they expect? They got trophies (0+ / 0-)

      for showing up their whole lives, and now they expect to start out of school as mid-level managers. This is what delicately pampered genius parenting does. Epic fail of my generation in terms of parenting.

      WTF!?!?!?! When did I move to the Republic of Gilead?!

      by IARXPHD on Mon May 21, 2012 at 10:38:53 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  It isn't just those right out of college (0+ / 0-)

    There is a hoard of the un and under employed who are experiencing similar circumstances.

    It may be through tough economic times, company profiteering off of their OWN employees, or sheer bad luck but there are qualified and capable potential employees who have faced similar circumstances in this job market.

    After working for years at any supposed decent employer who provided a decent income, some stability, and hopes for advancement or promotion there are young, and not so young professionals who too are lost.  They have dug into, and often exhausted their savings, and the materialistic things they used to measure and enjoy their lives are aging at best, or gone.  The worst among them, of us really, have lost their homes and if lucky they too can move in at home with their parents.

    Embarrassment does not begin to describe how someone who is in their late 30's or 40's feels when they have to move home with mom and dad.

    Hiring, like politics, is local.  Except when it isn't.  When I was a little bit younger, I was mobile and that provided me with an advantage over those who were settling into a community.  If there were jobs elsewhere, it was far easier to pick up and move.  The same support network that helps those who have made a place their home, is often an anchor when searching for a new job.  Think about the houses, the community & networks, and even family they have around them.

    The experiences that we are going through will shape us as a country for generations.  There is no loyalty to a corporation anymore, there isn't the expectation that doing the right thing moves people forward.  The only good thing that has come about from this, is people are again learning to stand together.  If the unions are paying attention this could be the start of something new.

    My mother and father in law grew up in the Depression, and it shows.  They are careful, and do not spend frivolously, they save.  My parents grew up after WWII and there is a difference in attitude, a continuing thought of it will always get better, and that there will always be a way.  Luckily for my parents it has worked out.  

    Even when my dad's company cast aside workers to make sure their president would get his bonus, the workers didn't believe it could happen to them.  Corporation after corporation has abused their workers trust, and now that it is gone, they are going after that of their customer's with similar tactics.

    It is a systemic shift.  All workers, even when full time employees, are now contractors.  Always keep the resume tuned, always look for the next position.  Make sure government requires that employers play by the rules, and that employers and states pay into and provide a safety net for those who are between jobs.  That is how we will move forward.

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