Sad: Generation Workless.
But Chris Cocchi isn’t playing video games.
Instead, the West Chester 20-something – who’s worked most recently as a line cook – spends most of his time on Craigslist, hoping to find the career listing that will break the cycle of dead-end jobs and unemployment – and pay well enough for him to move out and maybe go back to school.
“For most opportunities, they want the college degree and five years of experience,” said a frustrated Cocchi. “They only want the cream of the crop.”
But Cocchi’s misery has company – a lot of company.
The number of young adults in their 20s without jobs is the highest since record-keeping began after World War II, and their bleak outlook has barely improved even as the broader U.S. economy has seen a sharp increase in new hiring in recent months. For those like Cocchi, a young male with no college training, the 2010s have hit like a neutron bomb.
“I’ve never seen the world so bad for young people. The only way I can describe it is as a Great Depression,” said Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Boston’s Northeastern University, who has studied young-adult unemployment in depth.
The statistics are grim. Only 55 percent of Americans in the 16-to-29 age bracket were working in 2010, down dramatically from 67 percent in 2000, but Sum said that the situation is even worse than those numbers indicate. That’s because millions of young adults are also underemployed, working part-time while looking for a full-time job. Sum calls that “mal-employed,” which means holders of college degrees working low-end jobs.
In recent months, a virtual cottage industry has sprung up diagnosing what’s wrong with America’s 20-somethings. Magazine covers and cable-TV segments portray this first generation to come of age in the 21st century as hopeless slackers, addicted to their Xbox and their Doritos Locos Tacos but unwilling to get married, start a career or move out of mom’s attic.
Studies do confirm that today’s American youth – dubbed recently the “Go-Nowhere Generation” in the New York Times for its lack of mobility – indeed marry later and move into their own place later.
But many 20-somethings here in the Philadelphia region, especially those from the blue-collar middle class, say the delayed start of “real adulthood” wasn’t their idea. Paraphrasing the U.S. president of their childhood, they say: It’s the economy, stupid.
Just ask Elijah Little, 22, of Upper Darby, who left one job to take what he thought was a better one: loading trucks at a warehouse in suburban Phoenixville. Instead, his new bosses called him in after just a month on the job to say he was laid off.
“They said that the economy was slow and they were overloaded, and because I hadn’t completed my 90-day probation I was going to be the first to go,” said Little, who’s been aggressively looking for work since, to no avail. Little, who graduated from a cyberschool after attending Upper Darby High, lives at home where he helps take care of his 80-year-old grandfather. He had started taking classes at Delaware County Community College, but completing an associate degree takes money and time that he doesn’t have right now.
Experts say one reason the recent economy has been so awful for people in their 20s, and especially for young men with less education, is a mismatch of skills.
The jobs that were hammered the hardest after the 2008 economic crisis and that have been the slowest to bounce back have been manufacturing and construction, traditionally the province of men with only a high-school education. The sectors that held up the best, such as education and health care, attract more of the college-educated, and especially women.
Northeastern’s Sum said the formula is quite simple: Jobs are harder to find if you are younger (meaning joblessness is worse for 19-year-olds than 29-year-olds), if you are less educated and if you are male. And the so-called Great Recession greatly accelerated the problem.
That’s because older workers who saw their nest egg suddenly vanish were slow to retire, while middle-aged employees were less likely to take risks and leave their steady job. The end result has been a massive pileup for those clamoring to enter the career ladder on the bottom rung.
And although unemployment is less of a problem for college grads, experts say that your major is more important than it’s ever been. Students who studied computer sciences or anything related to health care usually don’t have a long job search, but a diploma in the humanities or most social sciences might lead to a position waiting tables or loading trucks – for the lucky ones.
Most 20-somethings know a university graduate who is what Sum would describe as “mal-employed” – in jobs that, on average, pay 40 percent less than someone with their education level should make. West Chester’s Cocchi, for example, said one of his best friends is trained in veterinary medicine but has found work only as a dog walker.
Rakeem Burgess, 21, a graduate of Simon Gratz High School in North Philadelphia, worked at McDonald’s for a time but then gambled that he’d be able to find something better. He was wrong.
“I get to an interview, and I get the same runaround – come back next month, and then next month it’s the next month,” said Burgess, who has gone out looking for work almost every day for several months.
Burgess would love to enroll in community college or a trade school, but right now he lacks the money not only for tuition and books but even for commuting to those classes on mass transit.
Catch-22s like that are typical for Philadelphia’s 20-somethings. Cocchi lives and tries to work in Chester County without owning a car – a daunting task in a sprawling exurb where bus or rail service is so sporadic.
And the biggest Catch-22 is this: Although young jobseekers hope their current plight is merely the misfortune of coming of age during the worst downturn since the 1930s, experts say the career hangover could last for years.
One study from the Yale School of Management found that people who graduated during a recession in the 1980s on average made $100,000 less over 20 years than those who entered the workforce in better times. Read the rest of this fine piece by Will Bunch of Philly.com here.