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Turns Out My Ivy League Education Is Worth Squat

Rek LeCounte   |   March 28, 2013    9:03 AM ET

This week Huffington Post will highlight the personal stories of young people in five different countries trying to find work during the worst unemployment crisis in generations. In Europe, according to recent figures from the OECD, by January "more than one active youth in three were unemployed in Italy, Portugal and Slovak Republic, and more than one in two in Greece and Spain." The outlook is grim for U.S. youth as well, where youth unemployment hovers at 7.7 percent; and even in Canada, which has weathered through the global economic crisis better than others, many young people are finding their degrees aren't worth much when up against hundreds of other applicants for a single position. Today's focus is on the U.S. To read the other stories in the series, go here for Canada, here for Spain and here for the UK.

Ships at a distance have every man's wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. ~Zora Neale Hurston

Economics is an abstract concept. When you're sitting in a sunlit classroom or under a courtyard magnolia at Yale, neither the stock market nor latest (un)employment numbers seem particularly urgent. While I was in college during the early aftermath of the Great Recession, I doubt I could have told you the relevant economic figures or how the latest government proposal would make our lives better (or worse). I didn't know how or if I would be affected by the haunting specter of "underemployment," and frankly, I preferred not to think about any of that. It was all much too grim, and I just wanted to graduate with good spirits, fond memories, a summer road-trip with my friends -- then get on with my life.

Oh, for those halcyon days.

It turns out the unemployment rate isn't that abstract, after all. It's an asphyxiating dungeon of carbon monoxide. Everybody knows the economy is bad, so everybody makes assumptions that, in aggregate, shift the world. Employers see abundance and take human resources for granted. People in well-paying positions with good benefits are afraid to leave them, so they don't. Folks stuck in mediocre jobs and dead-end careers dream of better but dare not chase waterfalls, lest they tumble and drown. And indebted graduates with all sorts of awards and qualifications settle for manifestly less than they're worth.

Thus talented people with Ivy League degrees languish in perpetual drift. (How funny that Pope Emeritus Benedict XIV claims there is no such thing as Limbo.) That's been my story -- and that of many friends -- this past year or so. In college, I imagined I'd have some promising career in foreign policy, international relations, or the defense sector, due to my Army background. (My dad is a career soldier, my mom is former military police, my younger siblings are both serving and my great-uncle died in Vietnam -- all Army -- so service runs in the family.) But escalating defense cuts have deferred those dreams a bit.

Thus, instead of the customary nine-to-five, I've fallen into habits. Since I'm apparently over- or under-qualified for practically everything -- from government jobs to nonprofit work to paralegal positions to whatever happens to be on this or that jobs list -- I do internships and other temporary work for sporadic sources of income. I sometimes go to networking events in D.C. or parties in Arlington and make "promising" new contacts with all the fervor of chasing gold at the end of a Notre Dame championship rainbow. I fill out more applications than I care to count -- and I tend not to count them so as to allow for pleasant surprises in lieu of frustration. I grow adept at avoiding uncomfortable conversations about "what I'm up to now" or "what my plans are" with anybody from relatives to dear friends I seldom see anymore because they're too busy being valuable to society.

Instead of deadlines and projects, I have still more applications, networking, and empty routines, peppered with the occasional interview. I learned from a political nonprofit that I'm pleasantly charming and from a communications firm that I have too much experience. Other interviewers noted with conviction that I'm quite accomplished and talented, and coworkers at internships tell me I have an invaluable work ethic. But there is always a better candidate. So it goes.

At some point, I stopped keeping track of the days. I think my birthday is this weekend -- but what, really, is a weekend without a workweek? What's the difference between a Monday and a Thursday when you don't have a reason to look forward to the weekend? In the era of YouTube, Netflix, and DVR, is there even any point in knowing what time it is on a given day? Ignoring the sky's cyclical dance makes it that much easier to stave off the nagging suspicion that I might actually not be smart, talented, accomplished or networked enough to get that promising offer from some inspiring congressional office, D.C. think tank, or whatever else might positively affirm my place in the world economy.

I happen to do some freelance writing from time to time, since I love research, politics and communicating with the outside world. I'm a people person, after all, and an able wordsmith in print. During good weeks, hundreds and thousands of people will read something I post on my blog, my Twitter account, or some other site (like The Huffington Post or The Daily Caller). I even get follows and fan mail from around the world. It's all quite exciting and very encouraging. It's not exactly a career (yet), but each time a post is liked, retweeted, reblogged or otherwise broadcast through the ubiquitous cloud of social media, I'm reminded that there may be some sort of future for me doing the kinds of things I love.

I still believe America is the Land of Opportunity. I suppose we must suffer an occasional famine en route to long-term prosperity. I had to take out several thousand dollars in student loans each year to pay for Yale and am currently in my second unemployment deferment for them. I guess that long-term prosperity will be just that -- in the very distant long term.

Anthony "Rek" LeCounte is a 2011 graduate of Yale College.

SPAIN: It's Me vs. 6 Million Unemployed

Iván Escalante López   |   March 25, 2013    8:19 AM ET

This week Huffington Post will highlight the personal stories of young people in five different countries trying to find work during the worst unemployment crisis in generations. In Europe, according to recent figures from the OECD, by January "more than one active youth in three were unemployed in Italy, Portugal and Slovak Republic, and more than one in two in Greece and Spain." The outlook is grim for U.S. youth as well, where youth unemployment hovers at 7.7 percent; even in Canada, which has weathered through the global economic crisis better than others, many young people are finding their degrees aren't worth much when up against hundreds of other applicants for a single position. Today's focus is on Spain.

Every morning after breakfast, you get ready for yet another "work" day, always hoping that today will be the last one like this. It may seem rough, but really it's not so bad: you're just one of six million Spaniards who are unemployed today. I know some people will say I'm "taking time off," or that I don't want to be working, but I don't identify with those labels. "Time off" sounds passive, like I don't have anything to do, and that's not the case with me. My job consists of selling a product: myself -- in a market with very little demand and lots of supply.

Day after day, I turn on the radio and tune into my favorite rock station. I like to stay informed, but it's too early to dampen my mood listening to the news. When I've just woken up, I have to bolster my spirit to make it through the rest of the day. I begin my day by reading the many emails piling up in my inbox. I begin, as always, with those with subject lines reading, "Response to your application for..." I open them, hoping for good news and knowing that, whether it's good or bad, at least the uncertainty about that particular application will be over. What we call "administrative silence" doesn't seem to be something used just by bureaucrats but rather a favorite tactic of many human resources departments.

"We regret to inform you that your CV has not been chosen by the company for its candidate pool." "We regret to inform you that you will not move forward in the selection process for this position." This is usually the first line of most replies. I always think the same thing: "Chin up! The next one could be good news." Since I've been out of work, 10 months now, I've learned that this is a race of endurance, not speed. Whoever keeps going, wins--and you've always got to keep going, even though up 'til now, every supposedly surefire move I've made has failed: I studied engineering; I learned two languages (English and German); I did internships, thinking that they would prove useful for something. But I'm 26 years old and... some day it will all pan out, I keep telling myself.

I look at the calendar that serves as my daily agenda. Two months to go until the next renewal of my government-issue unemployment card. The training course I've signed up for, which always fills up in a matter of hours, is next week. No job interviews on the horizon (this is almost always the case). And there is a job fair tomorrow. That means that today I've got the whole morning to look for work, and I'd better make the most of my time. I know that lots of people -- politicians included -- wouldn't believe it, but a job-seeker's schedule is not as free as it might seem.

I keep looking. I log into a few job-hunting web sites I'm registered for, and I see that the position I responded to three months ago is still there, posted in limbo. No one has bothered to take it down, thus prolonging that acute agony of not knowing. After much hunting, I sometimes find an internship that matches my profile, at a well-known company. The stipend is never much, but I always think the same thing: I've got enough savings to get by, and the experience I'd get would definitely make it worth my while.

So I get to it: I look for information about the company, I write a cover letter indicating why I am right for the job, I update my resume... all these are things recommended in that training course about "active job-hunting" I took a while back. I send in my application, confident (hope is the last thing to go) that it will be selected from among the 500 people who've already applied in just the two hours the position has been posted. And I keep looking. A few minutes go by, I refresh my application status, and I see that I've been rejected. So, that's that. I keep looking.

Normally, when one spends a lot of time looking for a job, s/he ends up losing perspective, so I always try to throw in some other activities -- like preparing for tomorrow's job fair. It's true, the entry fee is 12 euros; some might say that's taking advantage of the unemployed. I prefer not to think about it. I look for information about the companies participating and write the most relevant information on a Post-it, one for each company. Consultancy? I list my languages skills and mention the master's degree I am completing. For a multinational, I highlight my total geographic mobility, and my drive to succeed. And so on and so forth. I make small tweaks to my resume depending on the company, and I print them out and stick-on the corresponding post-it. At home I practice what I will say, over and over again. In my experience, there will be lots of candidates, the recruiters won't have much time, and the probability of ending up in the pile of resumes to be "recycled" is high. I get my job-seeker clothes ready for tomorrow. Every detail is important, and I can't afford any mistakes.

Nighttime approaches, and I do a quick visit to my groups on LinkedIn, a page I didn't even know existed before I started this process. There I share any relevant information with other people in my situation. I read updates from businesses that I follow, and check out blogs with advice about how to look for work, prepare for an interview, links to the next job fair, etc. I check my inbox one last time, and that's it for today. Every night I try to think the same thing: Maybe you didn't find a job today, but at least you did everything in your power to get one.

There now. To clear my head a little, I read the newspaper. Always the same stories: the unemployment rate this quarter, an international organization reporting on Spain's terrible macroeconomic outlook, or the latest about some corrupt politician. The atmosphere does not inspire optimism, but this isn't the moment to give up. If I don't try, I'll never get a job. If I try, I may not get one, but a .01 percent chance is better than zero percent, I say to myself.

On Facebook, I see the latest updates from a friend who left for the UK, and, after a long time and a lot of effort, found himself a job. Or from another friend who went on an Erasmus study-abroad program to work on his final project for undergrad, stayed to do a doctorate and is now preparing for a fellowship at a university in Taiwan. I like to think that I don't know what continent I will be on next month or next year, That in a year's time my life may have changed completely. And I tell myself that if others can do it, I can do it, too. Switching from "actively job-hunting" to "unemployed," I tell myself, is not an option.