Recession looks a lot like a depression to young people

The New York Times managed to make me feel both sad and angry—my two basic emotions!—with this article about the career prospects of recent college graduates as compared to their counterparts in previous generations. That’s the sad part. The angry part comes with Louis Uchitelle’s framing device, which wisely presents the article’s many surprising/dry economic statistics in the context of one particular Millennial, Scott Nicholson. If he still hasn’t found work, I suggest Nicholson hire himself out as the world’s least sympathetic protagonist. He graduated from Colgate in 2008 and has lived with his parents since, unable to find work. He also just turned down a job with Hanover Insurance Group that would have paid him $40,000 a year.

At 24, Nicholson is part of the 18 to 29 year-old cadre whose unemployment rate currently stands at 14%—nearly the level it was for the same age group during the Great Depression. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, an additional 23% of people that age are not even looking for jobs, bringing the total unemployment rate among Millennials to 37 percent. A number of those are in college or graduate school, but still: one third of American adults under thirty currently have no job.

Exactly how we can have Depression-level unemployment and not see crowds of young people rioting in the street and demanding soup/ambitious public works projects is something of a mystery, but it begins to clear up as we read about Nicholson. Although he claims to have mailed four or five résumés a week for the past two years, the 24 year-old Colgate grad—whom Uchitelle describes, vexingly, as “handsome as a Marine officer in a recruiting poster “—still lives with his parents. They pay not only his room and board but his cell phone bill and his life insurance policy.* Next month, Nicholson will move into the second room in his brother’s Boston apartment, where his parents will pay his share of the $2,000 monthly rent.

In other words, Nicholson’s is a surprisingly comfortable unemployment. He certainly sounds sad, but he’s also fully housed, fed, and cellular-connected, and is about to move to a cool city. The irony of Uchitelle’s article is that same conditions that have made Nicholson’s unemployment so disappointing have also made it practically painless.

Scott’s parents make more than $175,000 a year, and his career expectations are clearly those of a privileged upbringing. In addition to rejecting the aforementioned $40k job as a claims adjuster at Hanover, he originally intended to enroll in a Marine officer training program that would have made him a second lieutenant. Unfortunately, he was disqualified for having childhood asthma. Presumably he still could have enlisted, but as with the Hanover job he preferred unemployment to compromise. That’s an understandable choice—I’m glad I didn’t have to decide this year between claims adjustment and infantry—but it’s also one that defines our country’s present economic dilemma.

Scott’s grandfather is a veteran who started his career when he signed on at his army buddy’s stock brokerage; Scott’s father has worked most of his life in manufacturing. Both of those industries happened to evaporate before Scott graduated college,* in a national economic shift that seems to be both the cause and the result of values like his. Nicholson turned down the Hanover job in part because he wants a career in “marketing or finance or management training.” In other words, he wants to create national trends, use his wits to generate money without producing physical things, or tell people what to do.

These are the ambitions of the ruling class. Not coincidentally, they are also the ambitions of the American economy post 1970, when an unprecedented percentage of Americans entered a stratum of socio-economic comfort unimaginable to their forebears. A higher standard of living for much of the country is unquestionably awesome, but it also seems to have had psychological consequences, which Scott Nicholson embodies. If we accept that he and people like him are our best and brightest, or at least our most educated and polished, it can’t be good for the country that a third of them are unemployed. That it appears, in many cases, to be unemployment by choice—or at least refusal—doesn’t much ameliorate the problem.

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  1. Damn, I read the first page of the article, then your first paragraph. I went back and finished it, anticipating a hilarious tirade of anger about this high-maintenance pipsqueak. I’m a little sad you instead pondered thoughtfully and without vitriol about the conditions facing elite-wannabes.

    Fair play.

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