In a recently leaked audio file (from a private fundraiser in February), Hillary Clinton referred to them as “children of the Great Recession. . .living in their parents’ basement,” who “feel they got their education and the jobs that are available to them are not at all what they envisioned for themselves. And they don’t see much of a future.”*
Well, as it turns out, the children of the Great Recession, especially those who completed college in recent years, were right: the jobs that have been available to them have not been at all what they envisioned for themselves.
According to new research by Jaison R. Abel and Richard Deitz, unemployment among all workers, including college graduates, rose sharply during the Great Recession and continued to climb in the early stages of the recovery to levels not seen in decades.** It also increased dramatically for recent college graduates (whom the authors define as those with at least a bachelor’s degree who are 22 to 27 years old), doubling from about 3.5 percent before the recession to a peak of more than 7 percent in 2011. And even while unemployment among recent college graduates began to fall in late 2011, and to decline thereafter, it fell less steeply than for both college graduates as a whole and for all workers.
But high rates of unemployment only reveal part of the plight of recent college graduates during the second Great Depression. Many of them also found themselves underemployed, that is, working in jobs that did not require a college degree. Not all of them were working as baristas, of course, but their underemployment rate has consistently held well above the rate for all college graduates (which, historically, has hovered at around one-third)—climbing well into 2014, rising to more than 46 percent, a level not seen since the early 1990s. As Abel and Deitz explain,
This divergence between falling unemployment and rising underemployment among recent college graduates between mid-2011 and mid-2014 suggests that more graduates were finding jobs during this time, just not necessarily good ones.
The fact is, no matter how hard they tried, recent college graduates have had a difficult time finding jobs that met their degrees. That’s because, beginning in 2011, the demand for college jobs has fallen further and further behind postings for non-college jobs. According to the authors,
The steady growth of non-college jobs, coupled with the relatively soft demand for college graduates during this three-year period, appears to have forced many recent college graduates to take jobs not commensurate with their education. With the demand for college graduates rising again beginning in mid-2014, underemployment also started to come down. However, even with this modest improvement, 44.6 percent of college graduates—nearly one in two—found themselves underemployed in the early stages of their careers following the Great Recession.
What’s interesting is that recent college graduates, who were disappointed by the fewer and worse jobs they offered, for which they and their families had accumulated large amounts of student debt, did not choose the safe, mainstream option. They opted for a much-derided “idealism” and supported Sanders in much higher numbers than his self-identified “center-left/center-right” opponent.
For the last few decades, the value of a college degree has been economic and social dogma in the United States. Recent college graduates, who were forced to confront that dogma, were perhaps more prepared then to challenge other dogmas, including the political options presented by the American establishment.
*From Clinton’s perspective, underemployed Millennials’ support for Bernie Sanders betrayed “a deep desire to believe that we can have free college, free healthcare, that what we’ve done hasn’t gone far enough, and that we just need to, you know, go as far as, you know, Scandinavia, whatever that means, and half the people don’t know what that means, but it’s something that they deeply feel.”
**The charts from the Abel and Deitz research paper are updated on the Federal Reserve Bank of New York web site.