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Are Recent College Grads a ‘Lost Generation’?

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With unemployment hovering at 9 percent and a growing demographic of laid-off job-seekers in their late 20s and 30s, it’s certainly not the best time to be a fresh college grad.

Last week, CNN published a report that lays the bleakness on thick, describing the last few years of graduates as the “Lost Generation” and citing the troubling stat that 60 percent of ’06-’10 grads don’t have a full-time job in their chosen profession. Like clockwork, the New York Times promptly delivered its own spin on the “college kids are screwed” angle.

But are they? Or, at least, are they all screwed equally? The conversation has primarily focused on the big-name schools that, with their emphasis on critical thinking and high-minded intellectualism, may not actually be the best places for preparing students for the real-life workforce.

Few articles have focused on vocational schools, or even traditional colleges that have established co-op programs. A recent Rutgers study (PDF), which sampled a nationally representative group of people who graduated between 2006 and 2010, found that students with internship experience in college earn a median salary that’s nearly $7,000 higher than those without. At Northeastern University, most undergrads spend at least two or three semesters in the working world, and the result (at least according to the university) is that approximately 40 percent of students nab post-grad gigs with one of their co-op employers.

Given the current job predicament for new grads, it’s surprising there aren’t calls for a wider range of colleges to implement similar institution-wide program requirements for students.

News coverage of recent grad unemployment also often glosses over the fact that some majors more readily lend themselves to stronger job prospects than others. One analysis found that graduates who majored in education or engineering are over 50 percent more likely to end up in a job in those fields than people with more liberal-arts concentrations like the humanities.

This may trouble folks who view college as a place to explore different disciplines rather than speed through a pre-professional track. In our current climate, though, it seems to be the students who prepared – the ones who got on-the-job training and focused on more specialized fields of study – that end up being a bit less “lost” than the rest.

Adam Conner-Simons is a communications writer and journalist whose work has been published in The Boston Globe, The Huffington Post, Paste Magazine and other publications.

Brazen powers real-time, online events for leading organizations around the world. Our lifestyle and career blog, Brazen Life, offers fun and edgy ideas for ambitious professionals navigating the changing world of work.

  • http://twitter.com/lifetackle Jason & Corbin

    $7,000 higher on average if you’ve held an internship. Probably WAY more likely to receive a job in your chosen profession, as well.

  • Anonymous

    Figured I’d post this on here as well:

    Hmm. I appreciate this one more than the stupid NYTimes articles about our generation… but I think it still must be noted that maybe the unemployment rate is not so horrible for the careers of grads. I didn’t have the opportunity to do internships in school due to my transfer status and am not in majored-in profession (I had two, actually). I did do work in this profession and while I enjoy aspects of it, I can now no longer picture myself having any desire to dedicate my time to it. From my experience and many of those around me, I feel the name of the game for our generation is really… carving out your own path and niche by directly applying any skillset you have to independent projects. Maybe this isn’t going to make you six figures right out of college, but it has put myself and most people I know on a path that makes more sense to them than the current career borg has to offer. It’s sad that options are so limited (and that jobs suck so much) but I see it as a sort of blessing… because it gives us the opportunity to reshape reality. I feel this is what CNN and the NYTimes and the Economist… so on… are constantly missing. They think we’re screwed because we’re not able to fit into the old paradigm… well. I say, who the fuck cares? Good riddance!

  • http://www.lesatownsend.com Lesa

    There is nothing new about recent grads that wasn’t also true when I graduated from college in 1990. At that time, recent grads had a difficult time finding full time work in their chosen profession unless they had aquired the specialized skills that employers were looking for — either during coursework, as part of an internship, or from paid employment. The only thing that changed between 1990 and 2006 (the earliest date included in the study) is that the country went through a crazy economic time when ANYONE could get hired, even if they had only marginal experience. In my opinion, THAT period was the abnormality.

  • guest

    I am in HR and have hired two Northeastern grads in the past year. It is GREAT to get a college grad who has REAL office experience. I highly recommend looking at colleges with co-op programs.

  • http://twitter.com/peopledothat Jeff Lovingood

    Love LOVE L-O-V-E this post! As long as high school students are herded into any college that will take them, there will always be ‘lost’ graduates. Me? I was like Moses wandering the desert for 40 years until I realized that helping high school students make great career decisions was my calling.

    Think I’m going to go to grad school to get a masters in a field with a national caseload-to-guidance counselor ratio of 400-1? Heck no! I started People Do That! so I could focus on helping high school students find their niche early, which will help them get through whatever post-high school training they need and position them for success (however they define it) on their own terms.

    Things won’t really change until the process changes. Thanks for the post!

  • http://armilegge.com Armistead Legge

    Loved the article.

    I’ve been doing a lot of thinking on whether or not to go to college, and so far it’s a no. I have the grades to get in, but I have other goals that I don’t want to wait for an that don’t necessarily require a college education.

    Although I will never stop educating myself, I believe that college has been overrated by most people. There is hard evidence that college grads make more money, but I think there are some other key factors that play into this.

    Thanks Adam

    -Armi

  • http://www.facebook.com/artyochim Arthur Yochim

    The more things change the more they (almost) stay the same. I entered the job market in 1992 and it was a very scary time to be looking for work. The economy was in a recession that had been going on for years and that would last until the late 90’s. Also, the workforce was relatively young and consequently it was an employer’s market. New hires were willing to do any task regardless of how menial and thankless it was. Also, we worked crazy unpaid overtime. We did this because there was literally hundreds of other equally qualified applicants who were willing to take our place.

    I would say it continued to be an employer’s market until 2000 or so when the economy started to finally take off. By 2006 I no longer recognized the job market. Applicants dictated the conditions of their employment and would quit without hesitation. This new generation of employees wasn’t willing to “pay their dues”, work overtime or sacrifice their personal lives for their careers.

    At the time I felt a complex mixture of frustration due to an inability to deal with employees who didn’t seem to want a job, envy of those same employees who were enjoying salaries and benefits far above what I had at a similar age and a sense that maybe finally, justice was being served in the job market with employees being able to set the terms of their employment. I remember thinking “man, if only the job market was like this when I was entering it.”

    At the time it looked like perhaps this would be the new normal, but we should have known better. Since 2008 the job market has been in turmoil. I would say it is neither an employee’s nor an employer’s market. As an employer I still only get a small pool of applicants for positions, yet I know from talking to people just finishing college that many are looking for work and it is much more difficult to get a job than it was four or five years ago.

    As has been said elsewhere, employees with relevant job skills are the thing that seems to be lacking. One thing that is probably responsible for this is the explosion in specialized skills. Finding individuals with the specialized skills you need, or finding an employer looking for your skills, is not easy, hence the failure of employer’s and employee’s to find each other and a false picture of job scarcity. But that’s just my opinion, and I could be wrong.

    So are things “better” today than they were when I was graduating? Yes, for at least two reasons. First, the reality is that a large number of people holding the highest paying middle and upper management positions is nearing retirement age. Yes, probably not all these positions will remain after the people occupying them retire; however, there will be enough people retiring that there will still be many opportunities. If you are twenty today and entering the workforce you will probably be in a very good position to snag one of these positions in 5-10 years when large numbers of workers start to retire. Secondly, there is now the internet and social media. These tools didn’t exist twenty years ago. At that time the number one source for job leads was the classified ads section of the newspaper followed closely by jobs posted at on-campus employment centers. It was much harder to promote yourself and to uncover promising job leads.

    • GenerationXpert

      Arthur:
      This was my experience, too. Got my B.A. in 1993.

      • http://www.escortamsterdamservice.nl Escort Amsterdam

        got my b.a. in 1995

    • Thomas

      My experience coming from the tech industry is different. That industry went on a hiring binge between ’96 and ’99, and things really tanked around 2001. It was bleak in the early 2000s and I feel like the industry is finally beginning to recover. In fact, good candidates are harder to find than ever because the industry evolves faster than people can pick up the skills. (This is of course used as justification to import more H-1B visas into the country even with our shameful white-collar unemployment rate, but I digress.)

      I did the same thing you did, though I’m younger: worked the crazy hours, overtime, etc. and felt resentment at younger peers who seemingly sailed into jobs. Then, once I got into senior management, I realized I couldn’t take the pressure anymore and am now self-employed as a consultant.

      I don’t think it speaks badly of anyone to not want to work those crazy hours. In fact, it strikes me as a token of sanity. A career is not a life, and it won’t love you back in your darkest hour. Blessed are those who discovered the key to balance earlier rather than later. I’ve managed kids who didn’t want to work the overtime, and though I or my other managers wound up covering for them (and we did ultimately have to let a few go, not for that reason, but for other behavioral issues), I can’t really say I blame them. There’s a whole wide world out there beyond the office door.

      Maybe I’m alone here, as well, but I saw this recession coming around late 2005, and it was around then that the hiring market began shifting markedly from full-time work to temp, part-time, and contract positions. I was reading a lot of business and investor news back then, and the evidence i was seeing strongly suggested a severe recession within 5 years.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/John-Zachary-Sullivan/100000469139275 John Zachary Sullivan

    Brazen is right – I got a master’s degree in the humanities and taught for a while at a university but couldn’t get a job teaching in the high schools because I wasn’t certified even though I had a master’s degree in my subject. I was not going to spend thousands of dollars to study Education when I hear it’s pretty much a waste of time and people don’t learn anything, to get a job in a public school of bureaucracy and being a disciplinarian instead of a teacher, so now I do SEO & teach music privately. Our websites are http://cathyreisenwitz.com/ & http://www.fretzeroguitar.com/ respectively. It’s the adapt move or die approach to life, and the recession hit hard. A lot of systems are FUBAR and require radical correction, such as in social security, medical stuff with the insurance companies & government regulation running costs super high, and the education system which, as Brazen has pointed out, is tilting more toward private education and homeschooling as the public schools fail us more and more. Still, I’m optimistic that this trend toward liberty is a good thing and that the market is correcting itself and heading toward more sustainable paths.

  • EricCharlesWentworth

    Articles like this are usually written by someone who isn’t old enough to have remembered past economic difficulties our nation has endured. During the inflationary/recession years between 1970 and 1990 unemployment was at times high, interest rates exceeded 15% and jobs were hard to come by. No one would say the Baby Boomers are a Lost Generation but that is the group who weathered the shocks of those years and survived.

  • Boomzilla

    “One analysis found that graduates who majored in education or engineering are over 50 percent more likely to end up in a job in those fields than people with more liberal-arts concentrations like the humanities.” – wow, and the sky is blue and water is wet. I don’t need an expensive analysis to tell me that. What I need is Computer Science graduates. Lots of them. And while I love and applaud the educational choices that students that study medieval Russian romance literature, they *have* to know that they only job open to them in the field is teaching medieval Russian romance literature…..

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_VFYU6QEPZEOKYM53RBXQSEKG2A Rick

      I agree completely. I am constantly on the search for qualified chemistry graduates and the majority of them either are foreign-born with poor skills in other areas (command of the English language, spoken and written) or they are far more interested in returning as soon as possible to their countries of origin, not in pursuing a long-term career here in the U.S. So my talent pool can possibly be the medieval Russian romance literature specialist, however that person maybe an accident waiting to happen in the lab setting. There does not seem to be an alignment between what colleges have as output and what industry needs to function competitively today.

  • http://montreal-chiropractor.com Montreal Chiropractor

    The generation isn’t lost. Mark Zuckerberg and many other individuals who have done great things are part of that generation. The portion of the generation that think that a college degree gives them some sort of right to succeed is lost. Hard work and a little special something lead to success not college.

  • http://twitter.com/WorknMomJournal Working Mom Journal

    As a Chemical Engineer with 5 internships before entering into the workforce last year, I would have to say that going for degrees in Science, Math and Engineering never gets old. Also, getting an internship while in college accelerates your career than you could ever imagine. I spent 5 years in college, and I do not regret it. I made 15K plus during each of my internships and I got some of the companies to pay for my tuition.

  • http://www.cvadirect.com Vente d’or

    I think it is really a pity not to contemplate college as a place to explore different disciplines. I believe that people who are studying really need to take into account many disciplines, mainly because it is important to learn better and also because it can allow you to discover new opportunities.

  • Bridget

    Well Penelope asked that I come over here and check out the site. Which I have been doing prior to her request. I do see that in the board meeting you accurately identified her role in driving traffic to the site. But, I can also report that beginning an article with gloom and doom statements is not a way to keep me coming. You might ask yourself what is brazen about this post? You might add into that question, what is entertaining or engaging about this post. So maybe you need to change your name to something like “Another article about how looking for a job sucks.” or maybe you could recruit a writer who is fun and smart. You will have to brainstorm that one in the next board meeting or maybe an emergency meeting. I have checked you out since Penelope has taken a lessened role and it reads like a bad relationship conversation ….blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

    • PlanOpen

      Dooms day talk on a pro-GenY career/social networking site is like shitting at the waterhole. Yes, sense of realism is crucial, but optimism is vital in any economy and should be a habit. So start practicing…

  • http://www.noelrozny.com Noel

    I definitely agree with the internship angle of this post. I have a liberal arts degree, but it was all the work/interning in college that gave me work experience and professional contacts I needed to launch my career. I feel like my experience gave me the best of both worlds.

    • Thomas

      I couldn’t agree more. Internships weren’t emphasized as much when I was in school, but I did take a job through the school related to my intended career path, which gave me important on-the-job training I couldn’t get in class. And likewise, my coursework gave me analytical and research skills I couldn’t get on the job. It truly is the best of both worlds.

  • http://twitter.com/aliciablain AliciaBlain

    Isn’t it amazing how TV & newspapers love to focus on gloom & doom? That’s what sells, right? I think you can ask any generation & they will have their own version of “tough times”. I actually believe the more we focus on gloom & doom the more we keep getting more of it. Although this is a tough time for college grads looking for jobs, I think they also have great opportunities to pave their own way. There are many Gen Yers who are starting their own businesses now because unlike other generations, technology & global access gives them tremendous reach & access. I know of many young people who have gone into business with their parents who have been recently laid off from their jobs & are doing great as entreprenuers.

    For those that are looking for corporate jobs, I do agree that the best route to landing one is through internships or co-op programs. It’s a great way to try out the company & see if it’s a good fit. I’ve also seen grads land jobs by reaching out to their school’s alums. Believe it or not, attending alumni events in your local area increases your chances of landing a job or getting leads about jobs that aren’t made public. I’ve know quite a few grads that have tapped their alumni networks & gotten jobs as a result.

    The point is to stay positive and not wallow in gloom & doom. I know that’s often difficult to do but it’s worth doing. That’s where the opportunities are.

  • Adam Conner-Simons

    Hey everybody, thanks for the feedback on the piece! For those commenters who clasped onto the whole “doom and gloom” angle, I’d like to respond and say that I, in fact, view my blogpost as something of a rebuke of that mentality. As a (semi-)recent college grad myself, I’ve felt frustrated by the simplistically pessimistic news stories about my generation’s job prospects, and wanted to explore the types of twentysomethings who have had more successful careers. I did internships every summer in college, and started freelancing as a sophomore, and I can honestly say that those experiences can go a long way. Is that a particularly “brazen” thesis on my part? Maybe not. But it’s a perspective that nevertheless isn’t being expressed often enough…

  • http://www.facebook.com/MorganBarnhart Morgan Barnhart

    It would be so great if more colleges would focus more on real-world experience rather than strictly classrooms. If students were able to actually live in their career field (while taking a class or two at the same time) they would be far more ready for a real world job and may even get hired by the company they worked for.

    I don’t think the outlook is as bleak as the stats say (because stats are often very skewed), however, I think all careers should have the opportunity within every semester to take on real world experience.

    Cheers for the post, Adam!

    • Thomas

      Morgan, you may be on to something. This recession has been particularly hard on people over 45 as well as people who didn’t go to college. The unemployment rate for college grads is much lower than the overall rate. There’s been a backlash against education as of late, much of it driven by anti-government politicians at the state and federal levels, but the stats still skew strongly in favor of getting an education.

      I do, however, disagree with the increasingly popular idea that we ought transform our colleges into trade schools. I think colleges should invest more into their career services centers and developing networks/internship programs with local employers – but sadly they haven’t evolved much over the years since I graduated.

      However, I also think the primary goal of college should remain “to get an education.” There is no substitute for a classical liberal arts education, and to be quite honest, I wish my colleagues who eschewed college in favor of tech trade schools would have had more of one. They show gaps in their critical thinking and ability to present research that a liberal arts education would have closed up, and those gaps can’t be addressed through self-study or reading on the Internet. The liberal arts university is uniquely positioned to address those skills.

  • http://www.tariqwest.com/ Tariq West

    Re: “This may trouble folks who view college as a place to explore different disciplines rather than speed through a pre-professional track. In our current climate, though, it seems to be the students who prepared – the ones who got on-the-job training and focused on more specialized fields of study – that end up being a bit less “lost” than the rest.”

    It’s problematic that we continue to think of academic majors as direct corollaries to careers (“destiny by major”) and perpetuate the myth of disciplinary separation. More thoughts on this here: http://j.mp/kQwOOK

  • http://www.everydaypublicrelations.com Kristina Summers

    I don’t think everyone is screwed royally. Some occupations are definitely having it tougher than others. I know for instance that I was layed off last December from a state government job. I went back to school hoping to make my self more attractive and am still without a job. Most of my rejection letters tell me I am either Too qualified or are great…but they went a different way (what the hell does that even mean anyway?) I am a conservation ecologist and PR/Social Media Specialist. You’d think this combo of skills would get me a job with the current push towards those with new media skills. I don’t know if you’d call it a lost generation (especially since I am not really a part of GEN Y) but I do know that if things don’t turn around soon things are going to get a lot worse before they get better.

  • deciBels

    Interesting, I actually graduated with a degree in Electrical Engineering in 2009, the thick of the downturn. I would say that maybe 60% of my small graduating class landed jobs. I was unfortunately unable to land an internship my entire time in school, but I was also one of the few who had the connection needed to land a good job after graduating. It was pretty dismal for my small EE class. I suspect most went to grad school and the ones that got jobs got them either with their former internships or at local engineering firms (an alternative measurement of bad job growth).

    It is funny though that I am now, at the precipice of another potential downturn, beginning the process of starting my own company, which may require me to quit my current job. I can’t wait! I look forward to the challenge!

  • Aktorra

    Go Huskies. I went to Northeastern specifically FOR the co-op program. Unfortunately it seems i have “too much expereince” and am “over qualified” for any of the positions i go for so I am still jobless. catch22

  • HappyValleyAlum

    “60 percent of ’06-’10 grads don’t have a full-time job in their chosen profession”
    I feel the keyword here is “chosen.” A 2010 grad myself, I was one of the lucky few to nab a promising position with a global conglomerate prior to graduation day; however it was not my chosen profession (based on my academic interests) and required me to relocate to a city far from my desired residence.

    Bottom line? There are jobs out there for recent grads but grads cannot be overly idealist about what they will do and where they will be located for their entry-level jobs. Grads must work their networks, focus on their skill-set NOT specific industry or educational background, and realize that our career paths will not be as linear and clear cut as those of our parents’ generation. Don’t abandon your dream career, but rather see the silver lining in the skills, connections, and experience you are gaining now.

  • Nancy Bolton

    Internships or externships are an extremely vital part of college education, especially in the current situation where employers want it all – a college degree, professional certifications, and hands-on experience – from their potential employees.

    I would say even if internships are not formally integrated into their college programs, students should take the initiative of approaching businesses in their chosen field for internships during their semester breaks. This way, they can gain vital industry experience and also make important connections which may later help them in their job search.

  • GDawg

    Actually, the graduates of today are long from being a “Lost Generation”. The true lost generation is Generation X (late 30-40 year old). Upon entering the workforce they were told by the Baby Boomers that they could not advance up the ladder too quickly, because they had to wait their turn like they (Boomers) did. Having no choice, and seeing the promise that in about 5 -10 years many of these Baby Boomers would retire, they waited.

    Then when it became time for the Boomers to retire…they didn’t. Health care costs, the fact that their retirement fund wasn’t what they wanted for their lifestyle, and repeated recessions and downsizing meant they held on to the precious few positions that remained.

    Now that they are starting to retire, they are beginning to turn their attention toward the younger generations that they say are better educated and have grown up with technology. The funny thing is that Generation X has been using technology since they were in grade school. Heck, they even helped to invent some of the technologies being used today. Plus, they have experience…something that the younger generation doesn’t have. Of course, they are being told that experience doesn’t really matter in this new global economy that has changed the playing field.

    The reality is, the younger generation will do just fine. The recession will end, the Baby Boomers will leave the work place or die off, and they will slide into those job slots because they are younger. Unfortunately, the Generation X workers will be perceived as too old (now that 40 is the new age where hiring becomes difficult) and will be passed over. You want to know the true “Lost Generation” …. Generation X.

  • http://pvcguttering.net Dimitrihouse

    I wouldn’t necessarily say that the generation is lost but the way that they view themselves will need to change. The days of graduating university and laughing all the way to the bank are over. A degree is now simply a part of a larger overall package that is required in order to succeed.

  • Brendan Murphy

    Graduated in 2008 from Penn State. There were absolutely ZERO jobs in my area for recent grads with no experience. Considering the only positions they wanted were for those 3-5 years experience and the economy just had layoffs of thousands of people with 3-10 years experience who’d take less money for that job. Complete BS. I had to bartend, which I am thankful I could even do, but had to go months paying $400 for my own health insurance.

  • http://www.davz.org Smartphone

    not sure about it, some people talk about our generation as lost generation or generation facebook. But what will remain when you remove all this social hype from the digital natives? Not sure about it, but the future will show

  • Anonymous

    There are no “lost” generations. Strategies and life paths differ at different times in history. Whether people have better on-paper corporate careers or more possessions is secondary to the reality that there is work to be done and life to be lived at every time.