As a 24-year-old American, I got lucky.
A little over a year ago, I was laid off and collected unemployment. I scavenged Craigslist for odd jobs, such as writing science blog posts for five dollars and taking photos of 5k road races. I almost replied to an ad about nude modeling put up by a likely creepster because the hourly pay was so high. I even contemplated the localized drug business of selling weed to friends. I was desperate.
I ate Top Ramen daily and sometimes skipped meals. I filled my calendar by attending events at local universities and nonprofits -- mostly because they served free food. I went to receptions and mingled with folks I didn't know -- usually because they served free wine. Sometimes, if I were fortunate, they'd serve cheese too.
I scraped by living in Washington, D.C., one of the most expensive cities in America, for nearly eight months with no steady income. I kept telling myself, "This is the city of opportunity. You can make this work."
I applied everywhere: bars, cafes, retail shops, nonprofits and for-profits. Nothing was beneath me. Still, I received no replies. No callbacks. I tailored all of my cover letters and worked my networks for any interviews.
And then, I got lucky. In December 2012, I finally found work.
Many of my friends weren't as lucky. Almost half of America's unemployed are under the age of 34, according to an April report by public policy organization Demos. Of the 16- to 24-year-olds, Bloomberg Senior Economist Joseph Brusuelas estimates that 1.3 million have been unemployed for six months or more.
It hits close to home, literally. My friends come over to my house and start up conversations about the number of jobs they've applied for that week and how many times--usually zero--they've heard back from anyone.
"Maybe I'll just go back to grad school," one said.
"My friend did that and she has an interview next week," another said. "At Anthropologie." She has a master's degree from American University and speaks three languages, yet the unemployed look on with envy.
Young people are doing what they were told to do: excel in high school and be well-rounded so you can get into a university and, upon graduation, walk down the aisle with a job offer waiting for you... if you're lucky.
For every public university graduate who is unemployed, I know another elite institution graduate who is without a job as well. It seems that your likelihood of unemployment isn't necessarily dependent on the prestige of your alma mater, but based more on the demand of the degree you graduated with. Computer science? You're probably doing okay. Social science? Good luck.
Out of the young who are employed, there are the incredibly bright university students who are working for low wages as administrative professionals. They can't publicly verbalize their dissatisfaction for their job in fear of looking ungrateful by peers who are still unemployed. "I have to do my time," they'll tell themselves as they scan papers and write up purchase orders. Sometimes doing their time equates to years especially in this market where older, more experienced Americans are competing for the same jobs that new graduates are applying for.
And while some are able to power through, many youth -- my friends included -- are deteriorating psychologically. Their work -- or lack thereof--drives them into depression or anxiety. They question themselves and their self-worth. Their self-confidence dwindles and they become removed from their friends.
If you aren't able to get an entry-level job, you'll settle for a 9-to-5 internship, which you'll usually complement with a night job.
When I worked as an intern for a nonprofit right after graduation, I also worked every night as a waiter at Ruby Tuesday's. I lived outside of the District because I couldn't afford rent in the city. So with a commute that took nearly an hour and a half each way, I changed from a button-up to an all-black uniform and apron in a Starbucks bathroom next to the restaurant.
All of this is based on whether you're lucky enough to even get to college -- which isn't the only route to success, but is ingrained as so into the minds of many by parents, teachers and society. Even if you put aside all of the social justice issues related to matriculation of a high school student into university, rising college costs are becoming a problem for almost anyone in middle class America.
Student debt in the nation reached $1 trillion, topping credit card debt for the first-time ever. And at least with credit card debt, it's washed off with bankruptcy or upon death. A Fidelity survey found that the class of 2013 graduated with an average of $35,200 in debt. That's an increase of nearly $10,000 from the class of 2011 who graduated just two years earlier. I pay my minimums yet worry weekly about the nightmare of being perpetually in debt. To borrow from the recent Taylor Swift song title: We Are Never Ever Getting Back to Financial Stability.
I have a job, a semi-stable financial situation, and live independently from my parents. I am grateful for all of my educational opportunities and work experience thus far. I am happy that my brief period of unemployment allowed me to become more resourceful. But I know that there are others who aren't as lucky.
They can't even afford groceries. They have limited time to craft job applications because they're supporting a family. They can't be flexible and apply to jobs all around the nation because they are taking care of a sick parent or a younger sibling. Some are in even more debt than I am, after graduating from law school with no job prospects. I am angered by the greater situation, but humbled by my own, and I'm doing whatever I can to help peers who are feeling the wrath of a troubled economy. There's hope: the future looks brighter. Perhaps luck is finally on our side.