September 29, 2011

The Lost Generation in Survival Mode

If you are in your 20s or early 30s and graduated from college or entered the labor market in the past four years you know the meaning of the Lost Generation. It is a term used to describe young people who are jobless, homeless (or living with parents), and seemingly future-less. It is a depressingly harsh reality that has been going on entirely too long. “Bright, eager—and unwanted. While unemployment is ravaging just about every part of the global workforce, the most enduring harm is being done to young people who can’t grab onto the first rung of the career ladder. “ October 9, 2009, The Lost Generation, Business Week

It is a life unhinged. Nothing is working the way that it should. The future is no longer as was promised. Life should work like this: you grow up, get a job, move out, move up, have kids, pay taxes (begrudgingly), and save for retirement…. And so it goes.

Well, it has not gone that way for the Lost Generation. It is a postponed life – delayed employment, delayed relationship building, delayed marriage, delayed childbearing, delayed home building, and no savings.

The unemployment rate for 16 to 19 year olds is currently at 24.7%. The unemployment rate for 20 to 24 year olds is 14.5%. For Black or African American youth in those same age groups the unemployment rate is 38.5% and 25.7% respectively.

This is a disaster. This is the stage of life when critical learning happens – career focus, life planning, individual responsibility, financial independence and much more.

Young people are an asset to be appreciated and embraced for their ideas, energy, and enthusiasm. Instead they are chronically unemployed or underemployed -jumping from one temp or contract job to the next, never really certain of the future.

The lost generation is a huge societal problem. The personal and economic damage is deep and long lasting. When a large portion of an entire generation is out of work for a prolonged period of time, or has never gotten meaningful employment, the social contract is broken, almost beyond repair. The longer young people are unemployed without purpose in these crucial adolescent and early adulthood years the harder it is to recover.

Chronically unemployed and underemployed youth suffer the consequences for the rest of their lives. Their earnings never catch up with their counterparts who came into adulthood in a good economy. The longer a person is unemployed or employed outside their field of study the more likely it is that their knowledge will be stale and their skills will atrophy.

This entire generation has come into adulthood at a time of global turmoil. It is discouraging and paralyzing for many would be job seekers. They just give up on getting a job. They have abandoned their dreams as unattainable.

Young military veterans are particularly hard hit by this recession. Twenty-something veterans returning from post 911 conflicts have an unemployment rate of 12.1%. These veterans of the 10-year war cycle came home to find the battle for a job almost as discouraging and endless as combat.

Although the US Department of Labor reports the national unemployment rate currently at 9.1 percent, if you live in the West or the South you are in much worse shape. The southern states of Georgia (10.2), Mississippi (10.3), North Carolina (10.4), Florida (10.7), the District of Columbia (11.1), South Carolina (11.1) sit just above the western states of California (12.1) and Nevada (13.4) in unemployment. People flocked to the South for job opportunity in the oil industry and manufacturing. These states consistently ran below the Northeast and Midwest in unemployment. Not anymore - things have changed. The jobs now available in the South are characterized by low wages and instability.

What can you do when all of the news is bad?   

When there is nothing but dismal news it helps to become creative. One civil engineer is finding his way back after a particularly difficult stretch. Even after a battering - Steven Kline didn’t give up. Steven did everything right. He graduated with his BS in civil engineering in 2005. He spent the first 4.5 years working on infrastructure projects. He obtained his PE… Then the bottom fell out of the market. He spent months trying to obtain employment but nothing matched his experience and he was outmatched by the competition.

He returned to school to work on his master’s degree in civil engineering. He is now taking an unconventional approach to finding a job. He took a survival job in a pub and found it a great place to meet people. He met a number of people who work for a small consulting business- in a niche area with demand - and picked up his first independent consulting project.

After emailing and networking with hundreds of people he connected with someone who could help him find his way. All of a sudden things are looking up in new and unexpected ways. He is doing real world engineering in a whole new field. It is not the life he envisioned but he is having fun. He discovered that he can work project to project. It is not yet as consistent as he would like but he is finding his way again. He is also putting his masters level courses to work and Steven is now seeing the whole engineering process at work.

Set goals for yourself. Having a plan means you have a goal – something to strive for. That helps enormously. Be affirmative: I will get a job or I will find my path in life. Keep saying it until you believe it.

Volunteer and you will have some great stories to use in interviews…

Get Active in Professional Activities. You will meet professionals in your field who work in different industries and in different organizations within an industry. Rubbing shoulders with employed people is one of the best ways you can help yourself learn about the possibilities. It also gives you the connections you need to find opportunities.

Network. Professionals love to help students and other young people. You are like puppies… so cute and so eager! People want to nurture you… Just ask and you will receive the help you need.

Do the unusual. Take a survival job in a place where you meet lots of people. And look for opportunities in places other than the obvious. Everyone expects jobs to be posted in obvious places like Dice, Monster, or Indeed. They are not. Most jobs are not posted anywhere. If you want to find a job - get out and meet people. Think outside the box about what work is. Maybe it is project to project – like a patchwork quilt.

Develop the most comprehensive list of companies that are in your field of interest and go direct. Find out as much as you can on the company web site and check the site regularly for jobs.

Don’t give up! Don’t stop trying. The alternative is just too dismal. If you stop trying, you will not achieve your goals. Even in the worst economy, people get hired. You do not qualify to be permanently unemployed if you are reading this.