Generation Vexed 

They're more tech savvy and connected than those who came before them. So why can't they find jobs?

According to a new Pew Research Center study, nine out of 10 18- to 29-year-olds believe they'll have enough money to lead the kind of life they want. Hold your laughter.

Thirty-seven percent of them are highly educated yet currently under-employed or out of work, while 54 percent have attended or graduated from college. That said, 36 percent depend on their parents for financial help, and a whopping one in six of those over 22 have moved back in with their folks due to the recession.

Meet Generation Next, 50 million people who've heard, "You can be whatever you want to be when you grow up," so many times they actually believe it. They can tweet, text, Skype, and watch Zach Galifianakis' Between Two Ferns clips all while eating breakfast — but can they land a job?

"I recently was told on the phone that over 350 people applied for a bottom-of-the-totem pole job at a museum that I was applying for," says 26-year-old Meghan Norman.

Norman graduated cum laude from the College of Charleston with a degree in art history in 2006. She'll complete her master's degree in the same field from Savannah College of Art & Design in May. She's held internships at museums, spent her free time writing reviews for Burnaway.org, a visual arts website based in Atlanta, and for six months applied to roughly 20 jobs a week, resulting in 10 interviews for various arts positions. Right now she works at the Gap.

"When I graduated from the College of Charleston, I knew I would have to 'pay my dues,' and probably I would be at the lower end working my way up. I guess now I would just like a ladder to be available for me to move up on," says Norman.

Norman and her Echo Boom peers are facing a crisis unlike anything their parents experienced. OK, sure, feelings of professional disenchantment resonate with children of the '60s, but come on. Just look at Dustin Hoffman's character in The Graduate. The charming Benjamin Braddock (in his red Alfa Romeo, mind you) was driving toward all the possibilities of post-war prosperity, not staring down the toilet at the festering 9.7 percent unemployment rate Millennials face today. (Plus, he had a cougary Anne Bancroft hitting on him.) You wanna talk about "The Sound of Silence," Dusty? Try applying for 20 jobs a week and hearing nothing. Save your sob story for Simon and Garfunkel. You were better in Tootsie anyway.

That's not to say parents of Generation Next aren't sympathetic. Most are, yet they benefit from the memory of stronger economic times, that mythical era that's as elusive to Millennials today as logic is to a Lady Gaga video.

When another 2006 CofC grad, Meredith Ritchie, got downsized from her first job as a copy editor at Women's Day magazine, that fact became all too real. "It was genuinely traumatic to get laid off at the age of 23," Ritchie recalls. "In my mind, the term 'laid off' only applied to middle-aged, burly men working in factories in Detroit."

click to enlarge Norman
  • Norman

Yet there she was, broke and unemployed in New York City. Luckily, her parents encouraged her to look beyond the magazine business and helped her out financially. However, Ritchie still had to face applying for unemployment benefits.

"As prejudiced as it sounds, I never imagined myself in a room with the homeless and other unemployed men of New York City getting resume and interview tips," she says. It was hardly a Sex in the City moment, but with $325 bucks a week from the government, regular freelancing gigs, and help from her parents, Ritchie survived. Five months later she was hired by Saks Fifth Avenue's advertising department as their copy editor.

"It's funny. When I was offered the Saks job, I also had the opportunity to be a copy editor on staff at Lucky," says Ritchie. "Instead, I turned it down for something new and different." As it turns out, in 2009 Conde Nast went through a period of massive restructuring, and Lucky laid off a large portion of staffers. When that happened, Ritchie says, "I felt reassured that I made the right choice."

Today Ritchie sees herself as one of the young, battle-weary survivors of the economic slump. She's beat up, but not beat down. However, a fresh batch of new recruits, hundreds of 2010 graduates, are just about to embark on their first days in the unemployment trenches.

Caroline Eubanks, a College of Charleston senior, is one of them.

"I got laid off from my part-time job last year. They gave me a packet of info on unemployment benefits. The whole shebang," says Eubanks, who's now finishing up her degree while holding a waitressing job and freelance writing gigs on the side.

When Eubanks enrolled at CofC, she dabbled in art history, then switched to a political science major. "I was thinking I could go to grad school and work at an embassy," she says. Ah grad school, the most expensive book club you'll ever join.

She adds, "I quickly realized more school would make my brain explode and that I'm too creative for faxing and paperwork."

click to enlarge Ritchie
  • Ritchie

Realizing halfway through college that she loved writing, Eubanks, a former City Paper intern, opted for a minor in communication. "I suppose both are generic degrees that point you in an obvious direction — law and public relations — or leave you to wander aimlessly," she says.

Wandering aimlessly doesn't sound so bad to her right now. "I can travel around the world, move to the other side of the country, or keep on mooching off my parents," she kids.

College of Charleston Career Center Coordinator Linda Robinson sees a trend in students opting for similar alternative post-grad plans. "We are seeing an increase in interest on the part of upcoming graduates in humanitarian/volunteering/short-term programs as a way to have a meaningful way of gaining work-related skills and experience since the job market is weak," she says.

Eubanks is open to all options as well. "I may have to wait tables and sell sweater vests, but it's all part of growing up. I'm giving myself a year to pull the whole 'I just graduated' bit before getting really serious about a real-world job."

A real-world job. For years the phrase conjured hellish nightmares of white-walled cubicles. Generation X'ers lampooned the cube in movies like Office Space and Reality Bites. In the former, disgruntled hero Peter Gibbons laments, "Our high school guidance counselor used to ask us what you'd do if you had a million dollars and you didn't have to work. Invariably, what you'd say was supposed to be your career. I never had an answer. I guess that's why I'm working at Initech."

Today, however, as the recession creeps into Gen Nexters actual psyches, the cubist hate has begun to diminish. Hey, a paycheck in your pocket is better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, even if that paycheck comes from, God forbid, Corporate America.

click to enlarge Caroline Eubanks isn't worried about a career, at least not yet - KAITLYN ISERMAN
  • Kaitlyn Iserman
  • Caroline Eubanks isn't worried about a career, at least not yet

Take it one step further, think executive office. One could always work for Uncle Sam. Travis DeFreest does. He went straight into the National Guard after graduating from the Citadel in 2004 and served in Afghanistan.

"It's a rewarding career, and you can never be fired or laid off," he says. He's seen plenty of classmates decide to make a similar move as well. "My company mates went from not wanting to join the military in our first couple of years of school to joining when we got out, because I don't think they knew what they really wanted to do and they had a hard time finding a job after graduation."

Citadel Career Center Director Brent Stewart has seen many students enlist in recent years. "I think we will continue to see an increase in the number of graduates serving in the military," he says. "Our students typically focus on a life of service, and service to country is the option chosen by many."

When DeFreest returned from his deployment in Afghanistan in May 2008, his position as a bike mechanic was ready and waiting for him back in Charleston. "There are federal laws in place that prevent you from losing the job you had before you deploy," he says. That said, by January of that year DeFreest was laid off due to the economic dive and had to decide which move to make next.

"I wanted to find something I would love doing every day, not just do to make money and get by," he says. So he started volunteer firefighting and was eventually hired by a local fire department this past August.

click to enlarge Travis Defreest served in Afghanistan before becoming a firefighter - KAITLYN ISERMAN
  • Kaitlyn Iserman
  • Travis Defreest served in Afghanistan before becoming a firefighter

"I can see being a firefighter for a long time. It's a very rewarding job," DeFreest says.

Eventually, however, he'd like to continue his career as a soldier, a job he dreamed of having since age seven. "I think once I get my military career on the path I want it to be, I will be able to live very nicely and start a family and support them."

There's that classic Millennial optimism again. One would assume in this Great Recession that the only folks who could afford idealistic dreams would be trustafarian poets, but no. As the Pew Research Center tells it, 18-29 year olds remain "confident, connected, and open to change." Their flexibility will likely be the key to the generation's success. That and networking, something these social media gurus are well versed in.

"My first phone interview this spring was because of LinkedIn.com," says James Lewis, a Citadel senior. Lewis used the business-focused social networking site to search for jobs and individuals working for various companies he was interested in. Using Google and a website called Vault, Lewis has been researching career opportunities in the business consulting field.

"I don't know how people went about going on a job search before the internet," he says.

click to enlarge James Lewis got lucky thanks to LinkedIn - KAITLYN ISERMAN

Originally from Columbia, the cadet is graduating from El Cid with a 3.9 GPA, but he knows it'll take more than that to get a job. "Me and my mom have butted heads several times over this semester, and I'm telling her it'll be fine," says Lewis.

Familial stress aside, he feels confident that it will all work out. "The thing about the Millennials is we're more of a go-getter generation. If I sit back and wait until I graduate to start looking for a position, there's people that will be a step ahead of me. Most people my age are aware of that," he says.

Eubanks, however, feels differently about her peers. "Not that there aren't hardworking Millennials, but what we consider hard work is different. It's blogging, tweeting, etc.," she says. Considering 93 percent of Americans believe that a company should have a presence on social media sites, according to Readwriteweb.com, that's not necessarily a bad thing. That demand could equal jobs for savvy technorati. But there's debate as to whether the age bracket is using YouTube and Foursquare to actually network or just to feed their need for attention. Let's not forget, this is the oft-dubbed "Look at Me" generation we're talking about.

"I think to an extent we are the Look at Me generation, but not in a negative connotation. We like recognition for what we do and for working hard, but we're not afraid to work as hard as we can to get that recognition. We know where we need to be," Lewis argues. He also wants employers to realize the Millennial generation's drive and determination makes them worth the investment.

So what's the rate on return? Employers, should you hire an 18 to 29 year old, you're likely to get a progressive, racially tolerant, educationally minded, wireless young buck. They'll fix your Facebook page and explain "vajazzling." They'll need to be reassured that they're doing a good job, but if you give them credit where it's due, you're likely to get an enthusiastic worker eager to please.

If you don't hire them, well guess what? They'll move back in with you. In Britain, 10 percent of men in their 30s still live at home, according to the Office of United Kingdom Statistics. Talk about a constant burden on your pocketbook and your patience; nothing says home sweet home like a 30 year old named Bernard in your bathroom every morning. Bullocks.

Generation Nexters don't want that either. When Ritchie called her mom that fateful day she got laid off, her mother's first words were, "Come home."

"She was ready for me to give up on New York," Ritchie says. That would have been the easier choice, but one she wasn't ready to make. "I think that the recession has definitely weeded out the weak," says Ritchie. "There's sort of a sense that only the strong survive."

She may have a point. There's something to be said for bad circumstances being character building. See what it did for Millennial's grandparents, the Greatest Generation. There's hope for us yet.

And the emphasis is on yet. For now, employment opportunities still look sour. A Michigan State University survey shows that hiring for 2010 graduates is predicted to decline by 2 percent, but Millennials refuse to be discouraged. They'll fight on, scouring the internet, glad-handing employment cognoscenti, and blogging about their job hunt vexations.

As for those pie-in-the-sky aspirations that you can be whatever you want to be? Eubanks says reality does bite. "It's like finding out that Santa Claus isn't real or that love isn't like a Disney movie," she says.

For Gen Next, the truth is, you can't type into Google "Get me my dream job," and it'll happen. There isn't an app for that.

But from one veteran Millennial to another, Ritchie says, "Right now in 2010, the belief that you can do what you want may not be entirely realistic, but I think it is still valid in the long term. To me, now more than ever, you have more opportunity to decide what you want since everything is in flux."

Opportunity in the midst of change is something that Norman, in her quest for a start in the art museum world, holds on to. "I know one day I will get a job in my field. I just don't know when that day will come," says Norman "I mean we've already hit rock bottom right?" Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, we sure hope so.

So, to the class of 2010, a toast: May neighbors respect you, trouble neglect you, the angels protect you, and an entry-level position — with benefits, vacation and 401(k) — accept you.

P.S. — Prior to publication James Lewis was hired by a Washington, D.C., firm. He found the job through a contact he made on Linkedin.


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