In response to Lizzy Ratner’s "Generation Recession," young readers from across the country wrote to The Nation to share how the recession has impacted them. For many young people across the country, the American dream has been put on hold. Student loans and/or unemployment are barriers not only to financial security but also to hope for a better future. Below, read a selection of submissions to The Nation.
Clinging to Idealism
I graduated with a degree in Environmental Studies in 2008, with plans to change the world (of course). I was eager to put my earnest idealism toward enacting positive change within a world that I’d been taught had run completely off course. A few months later, the economy collapsed, along with my dreams of a job that wouldn’t destroy my conscience.
I’m currently living on $800 a month, working part-time in a glorified data-entry gig. I’m completely uninsured and unable to pay back any of my $20,000 in loans. Even if I could get a job at an "evil corporation" that might pay my bills, I still wouldn’t be able to force myself to take it, as clinging to my principles is the only thing I can do to stay a little sane. I think more than anything else, I’ve completely lost faith in the capitalist system as well as the government that enables it. I’ve watched many other well-intentioned peers find themselves completely unable to both put their college educations to work and live out their principles in doing meaningful things in their careers. I consider graduate school occasionally, but I’ve seen too many people with masters degrees pouring coffee to make spending another $70k seem worth it.
In college I learned to be wary of capitalism; now I’ve experienced its flaws firsthand, and remain completely unsure about where to turn from here.
Emily May, 24
Overqualified is the New Underqualified
While in graduate school, with loan checks coming into my bank account, the recession was a boon. My income didn’t suffer, and suddenly all my travel and gift-buying around the holidays was significantly cheaper. It was wonderful, and I still believed that I, with two graduate degrees and a reasonably impressive résumé, would be able to start a great job after my graduation and coast through this recession with some budgeting and careful allotments of my paychecks toward loan payments.
Five months after graduation, I’m still underemployed, with a folder of 150+ job applications on my desktop. For every job I’ve applied and interviewed for, there are literally dozens of other overqualified candidates breathing down my neck just offstage. I graduated into the worst job market in my lifetime, and even my moderately fancy education won’t save me now. No one cares that I finished a MA and a MBA in two years; no one cares that I have eight years of professional experience. There are approximately six jobs open in my market for someone in my field, and six hundred or more applicants are looking for the same positions I am.
I’m now working a part-time retail job for $9/hr, going without health insurance, and having to take an economic hardship deferment on my loans. This "economic recovery" is meaningless to me at the moment, as a decreased rate of job loss still does not mean that my rate of job-getting has changed in the least.
Dana Horst, 27
A Vet Comes Home. To What?
I am 29 years old, a veteran of the US Army, North Dakota Army National Guard, and the war in Iraq. I have a Bachelor’s degree in sociology with a minor in criminal justice from the University of North Dakota. I graduated from college in December of 2007. Perfect timing (note sarcasm). Since then I have had two jobs lasting a total of 5 months. I currently am living in my parents basement, where I have to share time on the PS3 with my 55 year old also unemployed father. Today for excitement and fresh air I went around picking up sticks in our yard.
I have plenty of stories from my exciting life over the past two mostly unemployed years and have nothing but free time to write about it. If you would please get back to me and let me know what happened to America I would greatly appreciate it.
Joseph Blaker, 29
Maple Grove, MN
The Death of a Newsroom
I used to have job as a journalist. I used to work in a bustling newsroom–filled with all types of journalists. When I got my last job, in 2005, the newsroom I worked in was packed. So packed, some day-shift people shared a desk with night-shift people. We had an editor, a publisher, a managing editor, three city editors, community editors, 9 copy editors, and a sports dept of 10. More than a dozen reporters. But by 2008, staff was dwindling. I watched as round after round of layoffs decimated the newsroom. The publisher quit. The executive editor quit. Reporters and editors across the newsroom were given "involuntary separation packages." The online staff went from half a dozen, to one. The copy desk was chiseled to two.
In April, I got my walking papers. The bustling newsroom that had at least 50 people in it in 2005 was decimated. The paper no longer has an in-house sports dept. It has one reporter and one editor. The managing editor now runs the show. He’s the only editorial management left. There is a day editor, a night editor and about four reporters. That is what is left. The recession killed my paper.
Ruth Schneider, 36
New York, NY
A Generation’s Dream Deferred
My husband and I graduated from high school in the class of 2000, and so our expectations about our adult lives were built during the days of soaring stock prices and the tech bubble. Although we graduated at the top of our class, we have never tasted the supposed American dream. We were hit by the 2003/2004 recession when I graduated early from college to save money, only to find that there were no jobs. Now, after having to put my graduate school plans on hold due to my husband having cancer, I have been officially unemployed for 22 months. His job offers us little solace–with low government sector wages plus a mandatory 13-day furlough, we can barely make ends meet. We didn’t buy a home, we share a compact car and we don’t have cable TV. We even lived with our inlaws for a combined period of 3.5 years.
We’re not trying to live the life of luxury, but we know that we’ll never approximate what our parents’ generation had. Our plan? We’re going to move to Korea to teach English. We just can’t see raising our children here.
Melissa Hahn, 27
Giving Up on Art
I am 22 years old, and the recession has definitely impacted me. I am a freelance artist, still living at home (I’d have to have a much more profitable profession to move out) and my art sales over the last year have plummeted by over 50%. Last year, I thought I might finally be "making it" as an artist–it was the second year in a row that I was able to declare a profit on my tax return, something I never imagined I could do selling artwork. This year, I’m predicting I’ll be filing massive losses. At an art show where I made $2500 at last year I made $400 this year. The entry fee for the show is $450.
I have faith in President Obama, and I believe that things will turn around eventually. I just don’t know if I can continue pursuing an art career in this economy, when I’m already a burden on my parents whose small (by small I really mean tiny–the only employees are my mom and dad) retail business is on the brink of bankruptcy.
I wish every night that the Works Progress Administration would be revived– during the depression, President Roosevelt had artists paint murals in post offices, create sketches of buildings before they were torn down–giving out of work or down-and-out artists the chance to make a living doing their craft. If a similar program isn’t enacted during this recession, I think many artists, myself included, will give up on their profession for good.
In addition to everything else, I will no longer be covered by my parents’ health care as of January 2010 because I’ll be 23 years old. Since there is no public option yet, I’m planning to stay in college for as long as I have to in order to be on the college health plan, which I’m paying for with student loans. 10 PhDs? If it’s necessary. I just can’t afford health care on my measly income.
All of my friends in my age group–both artists and non-artists–are having similar problems. I don’t know anyone my age that lives on their own because jobs for people in their early 20’s just don’t pay enough for rent, college, groceries and basic necessities. And while this would be sad in any economy, it’s even harder on our parents, who are also suffering in this economy, to support their grown children.
Kate Gabrielle, 23
Winning Small Battles
I work as a music teacher in a very small school district in Massachusetts. Last year we had some serious disputes with our school committee during our contract negotiations. Thankfully our district is small enough and fiscally frugal enough so that no teachers lost their jobs. This was especially a relief for me since I am well aware that any kind of art program, most often music, is the first thing to be cut from a school’s budget in trying economic times.
Two of the hardest battles we had to fight with the school committee were over health insurance and adequate wage increases. There is a trend in school districts these days to require more out-of-pocket money from their employees to fund health insurance premiums. I saw it before when I worked in New Hampshire and have seen it again in Massachusetts. Our bargaining team, backed by a representative and numbers provided by our state educator’s association (part of the NEA), found that if our school district switched to a state-run insurance program with similar benefits as our current HMO program, employees AND the school district would see a drop in the cost of their insurance. The fight over receiving an appropriate cost of living increase (balanced against the increase in health insurance costs) was also hardly fought. In New Hampshire, I had seen a 2 year contract dispute result in educators taking an entire year with no raise in pay. With the current recession and the costs of basic needs such as housing, food, heat and electricity going up, I can only say I am happy I didn’t spend another year stuck at the same salary like my former co-workers. In my current school district we had to fight to get raises that would cushion us against the current economic situation. Thankfully it was a battle we won.
I am reminded daily how even though I have had to fight for it, I am in a better position than many of my friends. Sure, my student loans are in forbearance and I mostly exhaust my paycheck paying for an apartment, a car to get to work and food to eat. But I do have a job that offers me benefits and adequate compensation and the luxury of living away from home in my own space.
Abram Taber, 26
Sometimes Education Doesn’t Pay Of
I graduated from one of the best universities in the country in 2005 (University of Michigan). I went on to law school and graduated with my JD in 2008. I attended nearby University of Toledo because they offered me in state tuition even though I was a Michigan resident. In law school, I developed a strong liking for tax law. In 2009, I earned a masters of law in taxation from Boston University. After graduating, I studied for and passed the bar exam. I have now been living at my parents house since the beginning of August. I estimate that I have applied to between 400 and 600 jobs and I have had 2 interviews. I am now faced with the decision of whether to abandon my hopes of a career in tax law and look for whatever will pay the bills. Being that I am forced to live with my parents and they live in a Detroit suburb, my job search is further challenged by living in the nation’s hardest hit locale. I am now 26 with 3 degrees and have never held anything more than a part time job.
M. Ryan Jarnagin, 26
Work Hard, Get Educated, Barely Make Ends Meet
I’m one of the lucky ones. I graduated from a fairly prestigious liberal arts college with a degree in computer science. I had no student loans or credit card debt as an ongoing issue, and significant financial support from my family to get me started.
Here’s the problem: for young people, the recession started much earlier than October 2008. We had no home equity to keep afloat, only wages, which were steadily dropping in value. In addition, there’s a trickle-down effect when the labor market goes bad: if a firm can get an experienced worker for the same price as an entry-level worker, entry-level workers don’t stand a chance.
I got my break, accepting a position as a developer/system administrator that regularly required 60-70 hours of work per week at a rate that amounted to about $9 an hour. By living fairly modestly (which meant no car, no eating out, no nights on the town, no cable, no air conditioning), I was able to save up a bit, buy a car 2 years into my post-college life, and get my career going. Even so, one 6-month period of unemployment (where I was not eligible for public help due to being a contractor at my previous job) wiped out my savings and brought me about 3-5 days away from being evicted. Since then, I’ve been steadily employed and facing fairly good financial prospects for myself, but the constant threat of unemployment or underemployment keeps me working at a job that require 70 hour work weeks.
But as I said, I’m one of the lucky ones. Highly educated and hard-working friends my age have found themselves moving in with their parents because they can’t afford to live on their own, working at jobs that pay $6-10 an hour (mostly in retail and fast food, which is of course no help in trying to get into a profession), struggling to get by. I’ve had to help these smart capable friends pay the rent, seen some live on each other’s couches for months on end, and seen those with jobs working extremely long hours trying to make something of their careers.
More than the physical deprivation, there seems to be a sense in which we feel lied to by our teachers and parents. We were taught "work hard, get educated, get ahead of your peers, and you will succeed in life." What we’re experiencing is "work hard, get educated, and end up barely able to make ends meet." There’s good news though: the folks I know at least are finding ways to support each other, figuring out that the most important things are free, and understand the need for both personal responsibility and collective support in a way that people who came of age in the mid-1980’s didn’t.
David Kleinschmidt, 28
It Doesn’t Pay to Work
How hasn’t the recession impacted me? A year and a half ago, I was on cloud nine…the very first of my entire immediate and extended family to go to college, and here I was graduating magna cum laude.
That was then.
After hundreds of applications and job fairs alike, I was not even given the opportunity for an interview, let alone a full-time job. I finally found a part-time job, but it basically does nothing to help me.
I come from a poor family, and the only way I could have even went to college is if I borrowed money. I have no qualms about the borrowing process, and while I was not looking forward to it, I knew I was going to get a job and start paying them back. Now, I have over $65,000 in Student Loan Debt, and have a job where I just cannot pay them back. There is just no money left over after car insurance, paying for a place to live, and food to eat. I have tried to defer, but been rejected. I make $45 more than the poverty level, and I am expected to meet the same requirements as the affluent. I have no health insurance, have high blood pressure and have to decide whether or not I can afford my medicine or not. I have battled a sickness for the past 2 months, long enough to sacrifice food to save up and go to a clinic. I was diagnosed with walking pneumonia.
This is no way to live. It does not pay to work in this country, or struggle like I am. I would be MUCH further ahead if I did not work…what a shame. I would get food stamps, free health care, and other perks that I do not get trying, and failing to make ends meet. I have had it, and I just have nowhere to turn. I never expected to make a lot upon graduating from college, but I did expect to make enough to be able to pay my bills. It is utterly depressing, and I have major esteem issues that I cannot overcome. Ten years ago I thought college would be my greatest investment, now I know it is my worst. I apologize for this being such a ramble, but I am utterly frustrated. It just does not pay to work.
Joshua Bigley, 24
Struggling in Academia
I’m 28 years old and in the 4th year of my PhD program in English at the University of Illinois. As I write this, the graduate employees union is holding a strike vote; we’ve been working without a contract for 10 weeks, and the administration refuses to negotiate on wages and insists on including a furlough clause in our contract, allowing them to furlough us for up to 30 days. (This is, of course, the same university where the president, chancellor, and half of the Board of Trustees just resigned amid an admissions scandal. The president and chancellor are allowed to keep their $400,000 salaries as they move back to faculty positions.)
I bought a house when I moved here, which seemed like a good investment in an affordable real estate market, but my grad stipend has not kept up with the rate of inflation. My boyfriend lost his teaching job last year and moved in with me. He was collecting unemployment, which wasn’t enough, and I had to take out student loans for the first time in my life to cover the expenses. He’s now in grad school at another university in Illinois and currently struggling to pay his tuition; he might even have to drop out of school next semester if he can’t pay his bill. I hoped to leave graduate school with no student loans, but it looks instead like I’ll have close to $20,000 in loans when I leave, and that’s not counting credit card debt or my mortgage.
My boyfriend and I are both struggling to pay our bills but can’t turn to our families for money. My father was diagnosed with colon cancer this year and has been faced with expensive medical bills for his chemo and radiation treatment, and this is with the supplemental cancer insurance he and my mother purchased years ago. My boyfriend’s mother had complications with heart surgery this summer, was in a coma for a week and almost died. She’s relied on her supplemental Medicare insurance to pay for her nursing home and rehabilitation treatment as she recovers; she’s been in the hospital for 4 months now.
The academic job market in my field is looking dismal and is not likely to improve in the near future. Given the current state of things, I’ll have trouble paying down my debt on an assistant professor’s salary, and that’s if I’m lucky enough to find a tenure track position when I go on the job market next year or the following year. Being a college professor was supposed to be a smart career move that would provide me with a job I love and financial stability. I’ve been in college for 10 years. As I see state and university budgets slashed, I know that all I have to look forward to is a job in which I’m overworked, underpaid, and held to unreasonable publishing expectations as university presses disappear. It really was not supposed to turn out this way.
Amber Buck, 28