“My whole life, I had been doing everything everybody told me. I went to the right school. I got really good grades. I got all the internships. Then, I couldn’t do anything.”
Fortunately for Generation Y, they aren’t sitting around waiting for Generation X to come up with career advice.
Moses H., a brilliant junior at Swarthmore, told me in a video letter from his semester abroad in Italy that “only the stupidest” among his cohort still expect the promised good job awaiting them at the end of their grueling academic ordeals in high school and college. “Anyone with a realistic expectation by junior year knows that there’s nothing out there for them,” Moses told me.“We have friends who have graduated, so we’re very well aware of the climate. We talk about it. And we’re angry. We’re very angry.”
Those still trying to apply what I call the success algorithm compete as strenuously for unpaid internships as they did for class rank in high school. Adding skills and experiences to a resume through internships and volunteer work remains the standard advice for the young and ambitious. (The pool of talented, well-educated, diligent young workers willing, even desperate, to work for free in order to build their resumes obviates the need for companies to hire entry-level employees who expect things like salary and benefits, but I digress.) Those shut out of high status/no salary internship opportunities compete instead for low-wage, dead-end employment, a prospect depressing enough even for those who don’t have tens of thousands of dollars in college debt to pay off. We’re lucky they’re only occupying cities and not burning them to the ground.
But some of them just refuse to play along anymore. Applying their advanced mathematical modeling skills, principles gleaned in micro and macro economics courses, and highly developed critical thinking abilities, they have calculated the odds against them and renounced the attempt to climb a career ladder that was kicked to splinters before they ever got a foot on the first rung. Self-employment is risky compared to a job with a steady paycheck, but when a stable entry-level position with salary and benefits seems as elusive and archaic as a unicorn, why not try it? What do you have to lose?
One group of high-achieving graduates from some of the nation’s best colleges started The New Inquiry, a sophisticated journal of literature and ideas. Their story of giving up on the dream of obtaining entry-level positions, or even unpaid internships, in a notoriously competitive and underpaid field and striking out on their own is equal parts terrifying and inspiring.
It’s terrifying to realize that in this economy, no level of intelligence, achievement and ambition can protect a young person from unemployment. I think a lot of driven high school students believe that they will somehow be immune from the youth unemployment crisis because they will be just a little bit smarter or a little more tenacious, that they will have some edge that will ensure their inclusion in whatever minority for whom the success algorithm still works. The founders of The New Inquiry hold Ivy League bachelor’s and master’s degrees. They graduated magna and summa cum laude. They didn’t forget to do something or do any of it halfway. They did everything their parents, teachers, professors and mentors ever required of them, and more, and it wasn’t enough to get an entry-level job or an unpaid internship in their field.
Their solution of banding together, pooling their extraordinary talents, utilizing their technological wizardry and creating the jobs they wanted, albeit positions no more remunerative than the unpaid internships they couldn’t get, is inspiring because it provides at least one model of what a happy future might look like beyond the success algorithm. Moses told me about a group of artist friends who, realizing that no individual artist can survive economically, plan to live, work, and market their art collectively, minimizing expenses and maximizing the reach of their combined networks. Instead of letting their talents go to waste waiting tables or sweeping the floor in movie theaters, young entrepreneurs challenge themselves, acquire new skills, and do what they love.
Their entrepreneurship is not the quest of rugged individuals, however, but of cooperative groups. Share or Die: Youth in Recession, a collection of essays written by twentysomethings, describes new forms of collective living and working to counter our environmental and economic catastrophes. Starting a crowdfunded co-op may not have been what a Race to Nowhere high achiever had imagined when she was sleeping four hours a night, taking six AP courses, running the Student Council and leading the field hockey team to the county championship, but it’s more fun than working at Starbucks, and if she’s lucky, eventually pays better. It may ultimately, as the economy recovers, provide a better foundation when corporations start hiring again than going back to grad school and acquiring more debt. Already, the founders of The New Inquiry have gotten attention and opportunities in the literary world from organizations that wouldn’t look at them this time last year.
They can’t all do it, obviously, and a million start-ups won’t be a viable model for the American economy on a mass scale. Contrary to myth, small businesses are not the primary driver of American growth, innovation and employment. Someone has to work for the Fortune 500 to pay for the boutique goods and services offered by micro-industries, although a few of today’s start-ups might be tomorrow’s behemoths. Perhaps some of these little companies will rise to compete with the large corporations that passed on the opportunity to offer the young entrepreneurs their first job. Maybe delicious ironies await us ten years down the road.
So what do we tell the children? The teenagers, I mean, the ones who aren’t thinking very much about the future yet, whose notions of the future are still hazy or involve playing professional sports? Should we tell them all to major in accounting and engineering and nursing? Graduates in those fields stand a much better chance of employment than art history majors. What models of education best prepare young people to survive and thrive? Should they all learn Mandarin? Does the bullet-proof credential or skill set exist? Or has the time come for them to learn to grow their own food, build their own houses, weave their own cloth, brew their own beer, and perform each other’s home surgeries?
(Answers to those questions will, with any luck, appear in Part III of Post-Apocalyptic Career Counseling.)
Thanks to Moses for cross-Atlantic and intergenerational insights and to Neil Fein of Magnificent Nose for editorial acumen.