Generation U: Too Many Underemployed College Grads

Jul 19, 2013
This article is part of a series called News & Trends.

Screen Shot 2013-07-08 at 3.34.55 PMRecent college grads today face some of the worst job prospects since the great depression. A survey by the Associated Press found that over 50 percent — about 1.5 million — are either unemployed or in jobs that don’t require a college degree. The AP survey found that recent grads were “more likely to be employed as waiters, waitresses, bartenders, and food-service helpers than as engineers, physicists, chemists, and mathematicians combined. There were more working in jobs such as receptionists or payroll clerks than in all computer professional jobs. More also were employed as cashiers, retail clerks, and customer representatives than engineers.”

The only category of grads that saw gains was those with advanced degrees — 98.3 percent of job gains were realized by those with advanced degrees.

Underemployment and unemployment varies a great deal depending on the major. Not surprisingly, students who graduated with degrees in the sciences or other technical fields, such as accounting, are much less likely to be jobless or underemployed than humanities and arts graduates.

The Skills Mismatch

Today, about a third of all college students pick majors that have very poor job prospects, including social sciences (11 percent), education (6 percent), psychology (7 percent), and visual and performing arts (6 percent). By contrast only 2.4 percent pick computer science, 5 percent choose engineering, and 1.4 percent graduate with degrees in the physical sciences.

This situation creates is twofold. First it can permanently limit the income prospects of the unemployed grads, and second it can also permanently damage them. Research by economists at Yale shows that underemployed and unemployed grads earn as much as 10 percent less over their careers compared to their fully employed peers. That’s as much as $100,000 over 10 years. Multiply that by the 1.5 million in this category and we have a 1.5 trillion loss to the economy. Worse yet, research also shows that these people are far more likely to become heavy drinkers and also more likely to develop depressive symptoms, though these effects are largely limited to men, who also suffered about three quarters of the job losses during the recession.

Alice in Wonderland

About 20 percent of people under 26 have moved back in with their parents. This is beginning to look like Italy where 40 percent of 40 year olds live with their mothers. A Pew Research survey found that 6 percent of recent grads still think they can make a good living as an artist, actor, or musician. A survey by Accenture found that nearly two-thirds of the 2013 graduates said they expected to be employed full time in their field of study, even though just over half of recent graduates are working full time in their field of study.

There are no easy solutions here. The cause of these problems are attributed to everything from being raised as a generation of dreamers to the lack of emphasis on math and science in high school. There should be a law that requires colleges to ensure that students are made aware of their employment prospects when they select a major. I mentioned this to the admissions director of a private college near where I live — with tuition and expenses of over $45,000 annually — and he said if they did that then hardly anyone would pick majors like history. Exactly!

This article is part of a series called News & Trends.
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