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.