For young 'Millennials,' an American Dream deferred

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 21, 2011 

FORT WORTH, Texas — Brooke Guidry, a certified teacher and former standout softball player at West Texas A&M University, left Texas for a promised job at a Las Vegas fitness center. But when the economy collapsed, so did that job prospect.

She returned to Fort Worth, moved back in with family members and now works in the mailroom of a local engineering firm. Recently, she began moonlighting as a referee at high school volleyball games.

Guidry, 26, is one of many young Americans who graduated from college into the Great Recession and its aftermath: a sluggish job market and stubbornly high unemployment that for them has translated into a late start at the American Dream.

"All the stars were falling into alignment for me," said Guidry, who hit .520 on the softball team in her senior year. She taught physical education and coached girl's softball for two years at a high school in Missouri City, outside Houston, before leaving for Las Vegas.

"So it's a little bit of a letdown," Guidry said of returning to Texas.

These so-called Millennials, who came of age at the turn of the 21st century, don't regret their four-year education, but they might be having second thoughts about their majors, experts say. But so far they seem to be handling thwarted career ambitions better than generations just before them.

Although half of the jobs taken by people who graduated college from 2006 to 2010 required only a high school diploma, two-thirds of college graduates were satisfied with their jobs, according to a Rutgers University study released in May.

The younger generation remains upbeat about long-term prospects and has learned to cope, taking material help from parents or willingly moving back home, said Morley Winograd and Michael Hais, authors of a newly published book, "Millennial Momentum: How a New Generation is Remaking America."

"They're going to be frustrated with the lack of jobs that they thought they might get, but I don't think they've become cynical or anti-institutional," Winograd said. "They're risk-takers."

Even so, the Millennials' optimism is tempered with a view that their overall prospects might be limited. A Gallup poll in May found the fewest young Americans since 1983 — 44 percent — say they will have a better life than their parents, even fewer than during the recession, which officially ended two years ago.

That reflects Guidry's outlook. "When I am thinking of retirement, it's not going to be there for me. I believe I'm still going to have to work until I am 70 or 80 years old," she said.

Although she still believes there will be a teaching job out there one day, Guidry is considering a possible Plan B in law enforcement.

"I thoroughly miss coaching, working with students. I always had the passion to educate," she said. "When you've been robbed of your opportunity, it's so difficult. I know it's just not me, that there are tons of teachers and coaches who are suffering the same as I am."

Some say their bad timing could have been worse.

"I feel sort of lucky because I wasn't in my mid-30s when the economic downturn happened," said Julia Thompson, 28, a 2007 graduate of New York's New School who has abandoned hopes of reporting for National Public Radio, which has downsized.

She feels fortunate in finding work that has led her to become a location manager on film projects, a job she enjoys.

"I was young enough to be able to make changes," Thompson explained.

"I wouldn't really know what it would be like for the economy to be less hard. I think it's made our generation very different from the baby boomers," she said. "We talk more about how we're going to survive. That's definitely a conversation that's common. I think people just got responsible quicker."

Thompson said she feels that the experience has "made all of Americans better people in a way. I feel like the generation before me was really spoiled and spent too much money."

Alexis Picheny wasn't seeking a flush six-figure income or a luxurious lifestyle. She had set her sights on a career in the non-profit field, but even that job didn't materialize.

Instead, since graduating from Northeastern University in Boston in 2009, Picheny, 25, has been working two days a week as a receptionist for two optometrists while searching for the right job, fundraising for a charity or a college.

"I'm a little discouraged, but I try to stay optimistic," she said. "It should be the time I'm starting a career, a 9-to-5 job with benefits. It's not happening. And it's hard keeping your self-respect."

Economic concerns certainly are having an impact on young Americans' lives.

A recent poll conducted for the nonprofit group Generation Opportunity found that 77 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 have or will put off a major life change or purchase because of economic factors. They are delaying such things as buying a home, saving for retirement, paying off student loans, getting more education, changing jobs, moving, starting a family or getting married.

That might account for the acceptance of living at home.

"No one is embarrassed by it," said consultant Neil Howe, author of "Millennials in the Workplace."

"Employers might see it as weird — a 'failure to launch,'" he said. "But their friends think it's cool: 'You have parents you get along with.'"

Brad Smith, 63, an employment coach in Carrollton, Texas, near Dallas, said young adults are largely clueless about navigating the job search process.

"I think they understand the market is different," he said. "But they text more than they talk. And once they peruse the Internet, surf the cosmos, applied for everything and then don't hear anything back, they don't know what the next step is. They're lost like a golf ball in tall grass. Not all of them, but most."

Carl Van Horn, the Rutgers political scientist who conducted the May jobs study, has a more positive view.

"The vast majority worked part time or full time while in college," said Van Horn, director of the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers. "My sense is that they are more 'grinders' than 'slackers.' And if they move back with their parents, it's because of economic necessity, not because they are lazy."

He stressed that not all Millennials are experiencing the same hardships. It can be a matter of luck when choosing a major.

"If you are a petroleum engineer, you are fine," Van Horn said. "If you are teacher, you are not fine. All over the country, there are problems for people entering the teaching profession."

What sets apart Millennials, Howe argues, are high levels of collective confidence, being team-oriented and believing that they are special, possibly even vital, to the nation. And they're comfortable with their parents' values. Howe pointed out that the latest annual UCLA survey of freshmen had a record number saying that getting married and having children was one of their life's goals.

A calculated optimism kept Bian Philip from "jumping into the first job offered to me." After earning a master's degree in public administration this spring at the University of Texas at Arlington, he sent out 80 resumes seeking work with a municipal government.

But now he's back living at home and holding the same dead-end campus job, while holding out for the public service job he went to school for. Friends say he's lucky to have full-time employment.

"I know at some point the economy is going to get better," Philip said at a campus coffee shop near where he works. "If I give up, I'll miss an opportunity."

Instead of just e-mailing resumes, he has decided to jump-start the job search by calling on local city officials to ask about how their operations function. Through these contacts, he hopes to create a network that might provide some mentoring and career advice.

And he has been thinking about backup plans — launching a venture with an architect friend, who can only find part-time work teaching math at a junior college, or trying something in dairy farming in his father's native India.

In Boston, Picheny said that classmates who moved seamlessly into well-paying jobs after graduation aren't empathetic.

"They just don't understand how hard it is for people who don't have that opportunity, that it's not handed to you on a silver platter."

(Shlachter reports for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Lippman reported from Washington. Tish Wells and Adam Sege contributed from Washington.)

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