it’s a jungle out there

In a “Lament for the Class of 2010,” satirist Joe Queenen pulls no punches. Let’s just say it’s not funny.

He argues that a Pilgrim toddler had better prospects, since at least the economy was expanding. And he backs up his concerns with more than jokes and anecdotes. Two million college graduates are out of work and the unemployment rate for 24 year-olds is 17%, almost twice the national average.

They are entering a labor market that neither wants or needs them, “a world where they will compete tooth and nail for jobs as waitresses, pizza delivery men, file clerks, bouncers, trainee busboys, assistant baristas, interns at bodegas,” he says.

He’s right, and as a college professor I have been somewhat complicit in this travesty. Only 25% of the majors graduating from my department had jobs when they graduated, close to the national numbers. And many of them are working at jobs they didn’t train for with salaries they can’t live on.

Many students I know have loans between $30,000 and $60,000, and they are marrying other graduates with the same debt burden. But, as Queenan points out, getting jobs that won’t pay their bills is only part of the problem.

They are, as he says, psychologically and emotionally unprepared. Their parents are economically stressed. If they do get a job, their coworkers (and bosses) are technologically and culturally challenged, or will at least appear so to them. They thought “The Office” was funny because it was so over the top and they are about to find out it wasn’t.

The real psychological challenge is that they are not used to waiting. Or working, for that matter. “In the workplace, you do not get a trophy just for showing up,” Queenan points out. This is hard on a generation that has been pampered and enabled in many ways. We’ve catered to their self esteem so much the real depression may not be a financial one.

It’s especially hard for many of them to overcome a feeling of entitlement. I find students often put off networking and other aspects of a job search, expecting that every thing will just fall into place for them as it always has. It won’t. There are few good jobs for those who are looking, much less for those who are merely waiting.

It’s brutal, even for the best students. One of my brightest grads this year is selling ads for a newspaper with a circulation of less than two thousand. A student who graduated two years ago just moved home after spending over a year looking for work in Chicago. She is bright and industrious, a winsome young woman who takes initiative and works hard. And she’s broke.

How is her generation going to bail out the fireman’s pensions, take care of the aging boomers, and fund health care? Plus, they have been taught that it is their personal responsibility to save the world and overcome every social evil. The generation with the rare circumstance of a financial future less promising than the one preceding it is being saddled with unprecedented national debt and emotional angst.

Yes, young people are capable of developing new industries and discovering fresh routes to affluence. Or at least finding meaning and significance. Every generation has been. Sooner or later all of them will own an iPad. But they are certainly off to a slow start, often lacking the persistence or the resources to even begin.

We have to stop kidding ourselves. And we have to stop kidding them too.

related post: higher education bubble

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