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“It seems like some people are always attached to their phone,” my father commented loudly at breakfast one weekday morning. I didn’t respond, my index finger caressing the screen of my iPhone as I used the other hand to spoon cinnamon-sprinkled cottage cheese into my mouth. This kind of detached behavior has saddled me and other members of my generation with attractive adjectives such as “lazy,” “entitled” and “disconnected.”

Unbeknownst to him, I was scanning my inbox for job posting notifications in the hopes that I would see something for which I qualified. Although my full-time contract position at a large international company had rescued me from my first post-graduate job as a Wal-Mart cashier, it came without benefits and with an hourly wage. It also bound me to my parents’ home in the heart of Amish country because I couldn’t afford anything else.

Unchanging Odds

Many of my twenty-something peers are facing similar circumstances. One, who graduated in May of 2014 with a criminal justice degree, has out-of-state loan debt exceeding $100,000. She also lives with her parents and has been selling cars full-time as she figures out her career path. My ex-roommate, Renee, describes her attempt to pursue a career in her field as “fruitless” since graduating from our Big Ten school in December 2013.

“There was about a six month period, from the day I graduated until sometime in June, that I did not have a job,” she explained during a Skype call with me. “I was looking for a career job, and I had a few interviews at various places, but nothing ever panned out because either I didn’t have enough experience, or for some other reason, I didn’t fit their bill.”

Renee majored in advertising, a field she hoped to enter eventually as a media planner, account manager or copywriter. Her employment history post-graduation, however, has been mostly retail.

“After that six month blah period, I got an interview with the Salvation Army. I had to start at the bottom of the barrel working on their clothing line.”

She now works part-time as a senior game consultant at GameStop and faces scrutiny from her family regarding her choices. “(My parents) don’t understand why I don’t have a ‘real’ job yet. They’re under the impression that I don’t apply to places, which I do, I just don’t hear back from the places I apply to. They think I’m sitting on my butt all day.”

Education No Longer A Guarantee

Research echoes these sentiments. CNBC reported a study conducted by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York that said approximately 44 percent of working college graduates through 2012 were underemployed in jobs that did not require a bachelor’s degree.

Ironically, our generation is the most educated to date: A March 2015 study by the Pew Research Center found that in comparison to our grandparents, women are 27 percent more likely to have a bachelor’s degree, with men trailing behind at 21 percent. The rise in educated young adults seems to have left a surplus exceeding businesses’ needs, leaving many college-educated Americans to work low-skill positions to scrape by.

Selectiveness vs. Hard Work

On the flip side, some don’t believe underemployment is a term that should be used at all. A search on any job-posting site will turn out in results, right?

In April 2012, Forbes published an article titled, Get Over It: The Truth About College Grad ‘Underemployment’, where staff writer Eric Stavitz writes,

“It’s just plain arrogant for anyone to consider their job ‘underemployment’…reinforcing this idea of ‘underemployment’ contributes to a culture of ‘entitlement’…We are all surrounded by mass media about the rare few who live glamorous lives and, seemingly, have anything they want.

This, along with other things, has led to an increasing sense that anyone is entitled to that life, without working for it. But if a person with a 4-year degree can only get a job at Starbucks, McDonalds or a relatively low-level clerical job, they should take it. Where on a college diploma does it provide a guarantee of a certain caliber job?”

Stavitz argues that categorizing “underemployment” takes away young people’s responsibility for their own success. But is he oversimplifying a generational struggle born out of economic circumstance rather than laziness?

Feeling Your Investment

While having a source of income is certainly better than having none at all, the mental health risk of underemployment is pervasive.

A 2010 Gallup survey on the emotional cost of underemployment reports that out of the categories “thriving”, “struggling” or “suffering”, 54 percent of underemployed Americans are more likely to be “struggling” than the 38 percent of their appropriately employed counterparts. Underemployed adults also are “almost twice as likely to have been told by a doctor or nurse that they suffer from depression.”

It makes sense: we’ve been taught since childhood that we’re supposed to go to college, graduate, get a job, and live on our own. What we weren’t prepared for was the Great Recession, the outrageous increase in the cost of higher education, the loan payments that resulted from furthering our education, and now the idea that this foolproof formula for success equates to a job at Starbucks. What gives?

Have you experienced underemployment? Share your story in the comments below or join the discussion on Facebook.



Posted 06.03.2015 - 06:37 pm EDT

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College college graduates higher ed Higher education Millennials professionals Underemployment unemployed