Underemployment, #FightFor15, and the Millennial Struggle
In my last piece, I wrote a bit about the compound issues affecting millennials-persistent un- and underemployment, indebtedness, poor long-term financial prospects, and the psychological fallout from all of the above.
True, it was a bit of a downer, but such is the outlook for young Americans.
How can this be, you might ask, since the overall unemployment rate (as reported by the National Bureau of Labor Statistics; see chart below) has been steadily declining since hitting a peak of 10% back in the Fall of 2009? We’ve gone from those bad old times to a bright, new, easily tolerable figure of 5.4% unemployment! Not such a bitter pill to swallow anymore, is it?
Hate to burst your bubble, but things look much bleaker when you compare the above chart to those published by the New York Federal Reserve, examining unemployment in college graduates:
See those huge spikes around 2008? That’s the Great Recession.
Things haven’t been quite the same since, both for those without college (see above) and those who took the plunge:
Things look even worse when you look at generalized unemployment rates across age, race, and ethnicity-America’s occupational outlook, like so many other things, has a distinct racial skew against people of color:
Although one’s early twenties are indeed a time of self-discovery, traditionally filled with missteps, false starts, and periods of unemployment as young people transition into the labor force, the NY Fed report makes a point to mention that the quality of jobs held by graduates post-college has significantly declined; recent graduates “are increasingly working in low-wage jobs or working part-time.”
You will never see statistics like these mentioned in the Labor Bureau’s reports, simply because unemployment stats have been heavily politicized over the years to the point where they are essentially meaningless. Has the labor market been adding more jobs? Sure, if you look at the big picture Labor Bureau stats, but what about the good old social contract-The American Dream-and those marginalized groups that depend on the American ideal of social mobility? Entire generations of young people were brought up believing if they played by the rules, got good grades, and graduated with a bachelor’s degree, a well-paying, high-quality career would be waiting for them at the end of the rainbow.
Not so much anymore-the availability of “good non-college jobs” continues to evaporate as more and more Baby Boomers put off retirement, leading to the rise of a permanent underclass of overeducated, low-wage employees:
As I mentioned in my previous piece, there has been some psychological research to suggest that ~$75,000 is the price of happiness. The prior chart operationalizes a “good non-college job” as one that earns an average of ~$45,000 before taxes, but it’s a pure distortion of reality to call something a “good non-college job” when these days, between the competing expenses of student loan repayment, living, health care, and transportation costs, $75,000 doesn’t even cut it. That’s not to mention the spike in low-wage (<$25,000/year) employment amongst the recently graduated-it’s at the highest level yet since the ’90s.
Much has been made of a so-called “skills gap” in American education, and yet those with traditionally lucrative STEM degrees are having difficulty finding work in line with their educational background:
Even those with graduate level education and law degrees are feeling the contractions of the modern job market:
With law firms cutting back…most available positions “fall within modest-paying categories: solo practice, small firms, government work and business jobs that do not require bar admission.”
And they might be the lucky ones, according to some 2010 graduates who said they were “too ashamed that I have not found a legal job” to allow their names to be mentioned. One law school graduate who said he did not want to draw attention to his lack of permanent employment said he was “doing rote legal temp work on the side to pay rent.”
“I dare not put it on my résumé because it makes you instantly nonprestigious and unemployable,” he added.
The unfortunate reality is that many of the jobs that have been created-and led to the drop in overall unemployment figures-are low-skill, low-quality, part-time positions, stats the Labor Bureau doesn’t factor in to its analyses. A recent whitepaper published by the National Employment Law Project (NELP) has highlighted this disconcerting trend in American hiring practices, one with disastrous implications for millennials just entering the job market, if for this one fact alone:
Six out of the ten largest occupations with median wages less $15 also rank among the occupations projected to add the most jobs in coming years. These are retail salespersons; combined food preparation and serving workers, including fast food; laborers and freight, stock, and material movers, hand; janitors and cleaners, except maids and housekeeping cleaners; nursing assistants; and personal care aides.
Just look at the numbers, because this is the future of American employment for young and old alike:
And that’s only until scientific advancements in automation and robotics reach a point where you might end up buying your next Android smartphone from an actual android.
The real question is this: If the jobs that have lead to the overall drop in the unemployment rate are low-paying, low-skill, part-time jobs, then can we really say our current strategies for combating American joblessness are working?
In a certain glib, myopic sense, maybe.
But for those of us that believe that upward mobility is an integral part of the American social contract, it’s a deplorable state of affairs, one that a growing number of labor activists and millennials are waking up to. Intent on pushing back against employers earning record profits while keeping employee wages at all-time lows, the #FightFor15 movement has been gaining national attention for its relentless focus on combating income inequality directly through a campaign to increase the national minimum wage from the absurdly low $7.25/hour to the slightly more livable $15/hour.
The groups associated with #FightFor15 have already achieved some notable victories-Los Angeles and Seattle have committed to raising their minimum to $15/hour by the early 2020s, and several other states including New York are adding their support to the idea of a living wage.
$15 bucks may seem like small ball to a college student on the cusp of graduating into a field like medicine or finance, but if the data shows anything, it’s that nothing in life is guaranteed. Once we exit the college bubble, we become another face amidst a sea of faces, forced to fight for fewer and fewer available openings, while shouldering the burden of student loan repayment and living expenses. Many of us find ourselves trapped in a vicious paradox-we are seen as underqualified for the careers we actually want, yet are simultaneously overqualified for the jobs we need to do to make ends meet, jobs that pay significantly less than what we and our diplomas were claimed to be worth by bursars and Sallie Mae.
The costs of low-wage, low-quality work inevitably affects us all.