The Ugly Truth: Young Adults In a Tough Economy

Start a conversation with anyone about the economy and you inevitably begin talking about jobs. Whether it’s the lack of jobs or the seemingly never-ending lines of freshly unemployed men and women across the country. The economy has become the story of our time.

When I thought about writing this post there was a little something going on in parks and town squares across the country. People, frustrated by years of the economy favoring the rich few while punishing everyone else, started pitching tents, marching, and occupying financial institutions. Their actions call loud attention to unemployment and financial inequality. The movement would  be known as Occupy.

But how have young adults been able to navigate this ugly economy? Who do they blame for all this? How do they expect the world to change after the recession and even after #occupy?

One survey highlighted in USA Today, taken in February 2011  by the New York City-based marketing and advertising agency JWT (formerly J. Walter Thompson) focused on the recession's effect on young adults.

The survey of 1,065 Americans 18 and older, including 243 ages 18-29, suggests 60% feel their generation is being dealt an unfair blow because of the recession.

These questions occupied (pun intended) my mind while I watched the news reports about the unemployment rates and bailouts of the financial institutions. I am actually not too far removed from these stories.

I entered the workforce in 2007 with a shiny new college degree. The job search was hard but I lucked out and got a job working with one of the baddest social justice organizations in the land. Little did I know then that a year later, almost exactly, the whole economy would come crashing down. I was lucky, but many others weren’t.

I decided to interview some of my peers and ask them about the surviving the recession years.

Ellesse Akre is a 24 year old African-American woman with Masters in Women’s Health and a focus in Health Policy from Suffolk University. She can’t find a job. Since she graduated in 2010, she has applied to 80-120 job positions and has had 5 interviews but no job offers.

“On paper I have 4 years of experience in health-care research, extensive policy work, and program management skills. There were no gaps,” said Ellesse. “I’ve done everything, at least everything I was supposed to do.”

Things got so bad, that Ellesse decided to move from Los Angeles to Maryland where she thought she would get more access to better job opportunities..

“This was a necessary move. I was hearing about people not getting jobs with just an undergrad or even a graduate degree more often” explained  Ellesse. “I thought the formula was simple: Go to graduate school, get a masters degree and just like that I get a good paying job. At least that was the idea.”

Even a move to the nation’s capital didn’t help Ellesse. She still wasn’t getting the offers she thought she was guaranteed with a Masters Degree in hand.

Thomas Hasan of Inglewood, California thought the same thing when he was in undergrad at San Jose State University studying Advertising.

“I was excelling,” said Thomas,” I knew getting a job wasn’t going to be easy but everything was feeling good under the circumstances as graduation approached.”

Graduation came and went and Thomas, a fresh faced college graduate, dived headfirst into the advertising agency world. He quickly found that as the economy tanked, the industry was hurting too, big time.

“Bad times meant advertising was disposable. The economy changed things. I was ready to be flexible but the offers just weren’t there,” said Thomas.

Flexibility was a theme echoed in my sit down with Erica Kato. An ambitious 23 year old 2009 UC Berkeley graduate currently handling weather and traffic duties (and various other newsroom responsibilities) for a Bay Area Television News Outlet.

“When I graduated I was ready to move to Kansas, push papers, whatever I needed to do to make it and be as flexible as possible” Erica noted. “I made it a point to hustle for what I wanted; not only to be well-versed in the ins and outs of the newsroom but to make it hard for anyone to ever fire me.”

For young adults in this world, flexibility is often met with sacrifice. Take a look at Erica’s morning routine

2AM- Wake up
3-4AM preparing scripts for Weather and Traffic
4AM-5am Weather and Traffic On-Air
6AM  Lunch
5-9AM Various news topics from news buzz desk; cutting and writing scripts
9AM-10AM Weather On-Air
1PM Dinner, let me repeat, 1PM Dinner

With a schedule like this, the social aspect of a young adult’s life can be hard to maintain. Happy hours and meetups get replaced by much needed rest and preparation for work. But the sacrifice is a reality for many like Erica.

“I just really want this. And I know in this economy nothing will come easy and that simply showing up or sitting idle is not an option,” said Erica.

Danny Calhour , a 18 year old recent high school graduate, agrees that sitting idle is not an option. He realized immediately that realities of the new world we live in can be harsh.

“In the first weeks following my high school graduation, I became an adult suddenly. I had to get a job, focus in on my priorities, take care of my mom, and save money to support family, “ said Danny. “Sure I wanted to be an actor and everything but that just isn’t a realistic option for me.”

I like to call this moment the great pivot. The moment where young adults decide between passion and practicality. Where you either fuse them together, or choose one over the other.

Danny decided to move away from his dreams of acting to focus more on the technical aspects of film as he saves money from his job at a local liquor store. When Erica first started at the station, pay wasn't good but she didn’t want to end her dream of working at a news station. So, she would tutor on the side as a source of extra income. And then you have Thomas Hasan who realized about a year ago that he needed to make a pivot. He decided to focus all his efforts away from the area of study he spent 5 years at San Jose State learning, and began a track toward becoming a firefighter.

“I had to narrow in on my passion so I had a heart to heart with myself,” said Thomas. “I realized I wanted a skill that wasn’t so reliant on the economy.”

In relation to the times we live in, I also asked for my interviewees reactions to the occupy movement and how our country got into this economic mess.

“We got money going to wrong things,” noted Thomas. “I can’t understand any rationale for warring about in other countries, with so many problems here.”

The final bill for those wars will run at least $3.7 trillion and could reach as high as $4.4 trillion, according to the research project "Costs of War" by Brown University's Watson Institute for International Studies.

With regards to the corporate bailouts Ellesse’s position is clear: “Folks got greedy and and hurt a lot of people. Wall Street made reckless choices and they got covered. Main Streets made the right decisions and we got screwed.”

There was theme of resilience amongst all the folks I interviewed. In my conversations, everyone mentioned a few times that things are different and things will continue to evolve. I heard the words flexibility, hybrid, sacrifice, and thick-skinned.

I was struck particularly by the story Danny told me. Danny, has been working on a very tight budget of less five dollars a day. He goes to city collage in Berkeley but lives in Hayward with his parents. One day he misplaced some money that he allotted for himself for lunch and transportation and subsequently didn’t have money for transportation back home. So, he walked.

That night, he had to walk 19.1 miles. At the same time, his mom was home recovering from unexpected surgery and his dad was at the local junior college studying to become an accountant, his own mid-life pivot after getting laid off. Danny’s story hit me with how deep the economic realities of our time hit.

I don’t know what the moral of this story is. But what I do know is that these are interesting times. Since I work at an advocacy organization I like to look at things through a social justice lens. A recent article from YES! Magazine said it best  “The shame many of us felt when we couldn’t find a job, pay down our debts, or keep our home is being replaced by a political/social  awakening.”

For some, that political/social awakening looks like the occupy movement. For others it may mean going back to school. But what Ellesse, Erica, Danny, and Thomas all showed me is that when you know your power, you can get a lot done.Your resolve, your strength, and knowing your power is required in this world we live. And by realizing our power, especially as young people, we can change things, serve as examples, and ensure the fallout that has effected so many worldwide, never happens again.

Here are a few resources and action items you should consider:

For what ever city you live  in, check out the local Jobs Twitter Account. for example here is Oakland's @JobsOakland

A interesting multimedia tool produced by CNN on “how to get a job” and even more up to date article in TIME How to Get Your Dream Job in a Bad Economy

Sign the petition extending the unemployment befits for those most affected by the rescission/depression

Stay up to date with the #occupy movement

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