Graduation is just around the corner. Soon you will leave the safety of the ivory tower for the excitement of the "Real World." Armed with your college education you are ready for all the trappings of adulthood. A real apartment! Real bills! A real job! Well, maybe...
They forgot to tell you that the real world isn't really ready for you. Your real world, as the New York Times reports, has fewer jobs and less payable hours. Clutching your freshly printed resume, you will join an overwhelming number of job seekers vying for fewer employment opportunities. Unfortunately, 2008 has already seen an overall net job loss of 232,000 jobs--the largest loss in five years. It should be no surprise that the unemployment rate has not dipped below 5.1 percent since September 2005, and that more than half of the unemployed are active job seekers.
Of course, this did not just happen overnight. Deregulation of the financial industry over the past three decades has brought great profits for companies--billions of dollars from the tricks and traps of fees and interest rates a loan shark wouldn't get away with, but which have preyed on the middle class, young and poor. And it has shaken the economic foundation of working Americans everywhere, perhaps, especially, 2008's grads: The cost of college has skyrocketed--both at private and state schools--leaving the average grad with nearly $20,000 in debt (and as federal funds dwindle and higher-interest private loans take over, student loan debt will be a greater burden than ever.) And a mountain of research shows that many of you will graduate with credit card debt--lots of it. American's 18-24 have average credit debt over $2400.
So here's some better news: a college degree still is a key step toward economic stability and getting a toe-hold in the middle class. That degree, on average, means a higher paying job than having just a high school diploma. The catch is that first you have to find a job.
Unfortunately, the bittersweet truth is that once you find a job, it may not be enough. While your diplomas are more expensive than ever before, the median income for the entry level jobs you might be applying for is decreasing, along with benefits like health insurance and retirement programs that defined the job security of previous generations. Even with a bachelor's degree, young people today on average make less then they did 30 years ago. Twenty years ago, 68 percent of 25-to-34-year-olds had employer-based health insurance; in 2003, this figure was down to 61 percent. Less income, fewer safety nets, increased costs of living on top of student loan and credit card debt could spell out a real world of financial trouble.
Fortunately, it is not all dread and doom. The deregulation that helped to bring about insecurity for many Americans and the economy at large is not a Constitutional right enjoyed by the lenders and businesses who use exploitive and abusive practices, but rather a policy that has failed to live up to its promise. Like any other policy, it can be changed through civic participation and the flexing of our collective political muscle--let your government officials know that things have got to change. Get involved by attending conferences such as "A Better Deal: Reclaiming Economic Security for a New Generation," in Washington D.C. on May 8-9th, which will be tackling the economic prospects of young people as we prepare for the upcoming presidential election. While you did not help to create the chaos you are stepping into, armed with your college degree, you can certainly help to create a better "real" world.
Jose Garcia is the Senior Research and Policy Associate for the Economic Opportunity Program at Demos, and co-author of Up to Our Eyeballs: How Shady Lenders and Failed Economic Policies are Drowning Americans in Debt, published this month by Demos and the New Press.