07/16/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Sympathy for the Graduate

For the past month, my fellow college graduates and I have been congratulated countless times, often by adults from generations older than ours. Their praises often end with a variation on this theme: "What are you doing now?"

This question seems innocuous enough, but given that my graduating class is entering the worst job market in recent history, it's a pretty loaded one. In past boom times, graduating without some kind of future plan might have indicated a lack of ambition. This year, however, many of my fellow graduates haven't received any job offers -- no matter how hard they've looked.

My friends and I have encountered many people who understand the difficulties of finding a job in this economic climate. Inexplicably, however, some people seem unable to make the connection between "abysmal economy" and "no job prospects." They instead write off unemployed grads as sloths whose marketable skills are limited to Halo 4 proficiency. In my experience, people's sensitivity to my generation's job situation can be inferred by their delivery of the now-dreaded question.

Many of the compassionate inquirers I've met have children of their own around graduating age. They've been on the other end of the phone, as their kids bemoan the difficult job hunt. Perhaps they've enlisted professional friends to take a look at their children's resumes, hoping for advice or a reference.

These sympathetic souls perform a well-choreographed routine when broaching the topic. Some flit around the question itself by using code words and phrases, like "What are your plans this summer?" or "Will I see you in [insert hometown here] soon?" They try to save graduates the awkwardness of having to explicitly say that they don't have a job.

Some people do take a more direct, yet still empathetic, approach. This tactical tango starts with a roll of the eyes and intake of breath, followed by the preface: "I hate to ask you, but..." It's nice to know that some people get it -- that graduating college unemployed does not necessarily connote laziness.

Not everyone I meet, however, is so circumspect when inquiring about employment. Some in this group have young children, so they have less of a personal stake in current college graduate employment rates. Why should they be interested in what my generation is doing while their kids are still in Algebra I?

One of my mother's friends, whose children just entered high school, recently subjected a friend of mine to the 2009 version of the Spanish Inquisition: "What do you mean you don't have a job?" she demanded at a family function.

My friend miraculously restrained herself from smacking my mom's friend (I'll call her Betty, to protect the uninformed) upside the head and shouting "Hello? Have you like, emerged from your cave in the past year?" Rather, she explained she was looking for work in the nonprofit sector, and hadn't been finding much luck lately. Upon hearing this, Betty coughed cartoonishly, saying "no money," sotto voice.

Betty later explained that she hadn't been paying much attention lately to the soul-crushingly high unemployment rates (9.4% in May). Her justification was that she was too busy helping her high schoolers pick next year's courses, getting them ready for their own future. Sure, that's important, but would it kill her to shift her focus from course listings to the headlines for one second, if only to avoid conversational faux pas?

Job judgment, however, does not seem to be limited to the unemployed. I am one of the lucky few to be graduating with a stimulating, full time job lined up, the result of hard work, retaining contacts, and being in the right place at the right time. And daily sacrifices to the Career Gods.

I usually hear congratulatory noises when I tell peers and older adults of my good fortune. On one occasion, however, I encountered an animal rarely seen in public: Parentus Jealosus, a breed that cannot overlook their offspring's struggles long enough to applaud anyone else's success.

I was out with another friend one day when we ran into a family acquaintance of hers whom I had never met. Chitchat inevitably led to the familiar line of questioning. After my friend had appraised her of her future plans (grad school), Mrs. Family Friend turned to me, inquiring, "And what about you?" I told her, emphasizing how thankful and lucky I am to have landed a job straight out of school.

The conversation could have been easily concluded, everyone walking away unscathed. But no. Mrs. Family Friend turned to my friend with a sardonic smile, asking: "Don't you just hate her? I mean, don't you just hate her?" Seeing as my friend and I are longtime buddies, I'll venture a no to her rhetorical question. But the implication was there: I have a job; therefore I should feel a bit of "survivor guilt," even if I deserved my success just as much as any of my peers.

Most people -- at least I hope most people -- realize that today's economic malaise also extends to college graduates. They understand that getting a degree in no way secures a salary. Others subject us to inordinate amounts of judgment, sometimes because we don't have jobs, and sometimes because we do.

So, for those who may find themselves conversing with a college graduate in the next year or so, please allow me to offer a bit of unsolicited advice. Paraphrasing a onetime student of the London School of Economics, who probably learned a few things about unemployment while he was there: if you meet one of us, have some courtesy, have some sympathy, and some taste. Use all your well-learned politesse and don't make us feel inferior; this year's graduates have it hard enough already.