Profiles of Unemployment: What It's Like to Be Jobless in Your 20s

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In August, the Atlantic asked readers to share with us the one thing people didn't understand or appreciate about looking for work. You responded with beautiful, heart-wrenching accounts of the job search. We published you in three pieces: The Unemployed Speak and Advice from Employers, and Longer Voices of the Jobless.

The Great Jobs Debate: An Atlantic/McKinsey Report

Here, we call special attention to the plight of the Millennial Generation. Some of you feel adrift without a college degree. Others went to college and graduate school, only to land in a job market where that degree carries the scarlet letter O for Overqualified. These are your stories.

Leave a comment or send a note to our private email account aboutmyjob1@gmail.com. Keep reading and sharing.

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"I have never known this desperation."

There are three stories, here: one is about the girl I was; the second, about who that girl became; the third, about what that girl doesn't know. They are all important to my narrative of unemployment. I am sure they are not entirely unique.

In the first, I am in seventh grade. Small (like I will remain). A good athlete, already: a runner and a soccer player. Later that year, I will make the school lacrosse team, having never played before. But right now, it is the start of basketball season, and the first year I'm eligible to play for the school. I am small - this is crucial: I do not make the team. I was cut before they put a ball in my hands. I am my father's daughter. I don't remember what he told me that evening; whatever it was, it refused to let me quit. I got better. I showed up, humbled and irate, at the same summer basketball camps as the girls who made the team. I ran (probably too much). I lifted (also probably too much). I worked with a speed trainer. The next winter, in eighth grade, I made the freshman team - I jumped an entire level. In eighth grade, I believed that raw ability and a ferocious work ethic knew no smallness.

In the second, I am in college - a senior. I've earned a scholarship to play lacrosse at one of the best programs in the country - at one of the best academic schools in the world. I have been hurt, now, for a long time. Hip surgeries, shin injuries, stress fractures - all have sidelined me intermittently since my sophomore year. College for me becomes learning how to be without the uniform. I spend hours in rehab. My backpack rattles with pill bottles - anti-inflammatories of every variety, painkillers, antacids, vitamins (glucosamine, chondroitin, E, B, Calcium +D) that unfairly promise hope. About to graduate now, it has been over a year since I last held a lacrosse stick. I redirected: I win several major university awards for my writing abilities. On my college graduation day, I believe what college graduates should: that I can turn any challenge into success. I have been blessed with talents; I have been tested in how to use them - in how to carry the characteristics of one into the other. I do not believe in fate: I believe that I have done the work, and it will pay off. It has been this simple for ten years.

The last story takes place this morning. Mornings are the easiest part of the day: they follow a routine, one virtually unchanged in over a decade. Wake up. Flex out the kinks. Change. Still half-asleep, guide my mess of blonde into a high ponytail. Slip on and tie up the running shoes. Bound out the door, reluctant at first, still sore, still stiff, a little cold on this early fall morning. Wander down the driveway, stretching a calf against the fence, a quad by the tree whose roots threaten the blacktop. I take a deep breath - and I'm off. This is the best part of my day: it is the only part that is quiet, the only part that is simple, the only part that involves that unique combination of talent (my speed, my lungs, my heart) and work ethic (this run, as so many runners know, is the result of tens of thousands of miles before it). For however long I run, the world goes still. When I finish, I will face a day without structure; a day marked by unanswered emails and phone calls and desperate Internet scouring. I have never known this desperation. I foolishly did not think I ever would. I believed that I was uniquely gifted, and uniquely focused.

I suppose this has been humbling. One can only run so many miles in a day.

"The repeated blows to self-esteem for people my age are staggering."

Pages of ink have been spilled to wax concern on the generation of young people born 1980 to 1990 who come into the real world with a sense of entitlement and an expectation of a trophy for second place. They claim we are unprepared for the harsh reality of the real world, which is cruel and mercurial. And the crash of 2008 gave them a perfect backdrop to frame these assertions.

It allows our parents and their peers to pay lip service to things like "the need to pay your dues" and "working your way up the ladder."  Most of my friends would be more than happy to pay our dues, you just won't get out of the way to let us.  "Interning will give you valuable experience and networking opportunities."  Yeah, that's cool man, but I got rent due on the first and a student loan payment that isn't even going to dent the principal due a week later. 

The expectation that my generation should be grovelling for un/lowpaid employment and thankful when we get it is ridiculous. And maybe that's the entitlement they talk about when they refer to us.  In the minds of baby-boomer's, it seems that "reluctance to work for free/low pay" is equal to "entitled." But I can't imagine that they'd do any better.

Let them spend some time sleeping four to a two bedroom, waking up everyday to apply to five to ten jobs, half of which they will never hear from, the other half of which will call them in for an interview only to admit that "we will most likely be hiring from within."  They can spend some time looking for work that will help them fill the gaps during their search, "free-lance" gigs that are run by shifty companies that swear the check is on the way and when it arrives the written amount doesn't match the numerical amount or temp jobs where they are spoken to like a child ("Do you know how to type?  How to send email?").

"I'm starting to feel like something is wrong with me internally."

The repeated blows to self-esteem for people my age are staggering, from the "Thank you for your resume" auto-responses to the bosses who undermine any shred of confidence we have any time we mess something up to seeing our peers who have the means to ride out the storm leisurely stroll through the worst economic recession since the 1930s.  People my age want to work, we really do, but we don't want to be in our mid-30s, pulling in a salary that will allow us to barely cover our expenses.  We want the opportunities you had, or, at the very least, we want you to be honest with us that a family and home of our own may not be tangible any more.  That's fine, it's ok.  You didn't cause this (directly, at least).  But don't tell us that your version of the American Dream is the endgame if it isn't available any more.

I'm an African American woman in my late 20s.  I worked my way through my undergraduate degree and finally received it just as the recession started.  As a result, few people were hiring then.  So, after spending nearly 2 years volunteering and helping out my family in whatever ways I could I headed to graduate school (a decision that I now consider to be the worst decision I've ever made).  I'm nearly finished with that degree and after a year of being a graduate teaching assistant in my program, personal reasons dictated that I relocate closer to my family.  As a result I've spent the last year unemployed.  I recently began working part-time at a big box store--on the sales floor making what I made at my last retail job 5 years ago--and I'm probably the most educated person in the store.  I can't get a management position because I don't have enough experience in retail--so I've been told on several interviews.  Apparently, teaching adult students--both in the classroom and as a volunteer tutor--are not skills easily transferred to the training of adult workers in a retail store.

I'm starting to feel like something is wrong with me internally.  I know that I've made some poor decisions in my life (getting a graduate degree in women's studies is the biggest among them), but I'm still out here trying.  I've applied to literally hundreds of jobs, and for all of those hundreds of jobs I've had maybe four interviews.  Only one of those jobs paid a human wage.  I'm not asking for much.  I would just like to make $30,000 a year.  At least that way I could afford to sleep on a bed again.  Did I mention that I haven't slept on a real bed in over a year?  I go out of my way to help people, not because I want something from them, but because I've always been this way, and when I need something (and I don't usually ask for help), no one is ever there to help me. 

It's sad to know that if I didn't have to work my way through school and take extra time, I'd probably have a job now. It was that extra year that put my entry-level job search in the recession's beginning.  I look at my peers who are getting married and having children and generally living life and it's depressing.  They've got jobs, health insurance, relationships, homes; I don't even have a real bed to sleep on. 

So people can criticize the educational choices that I've made. I've criticized myself more severely than anyone else can.  I know my graduate degree was an awful, awful idea. Especially since my research ideas didn't get much traction in the department.  People can say that I should have become a nurse, or an engineer or whatever else, but when I started college and the economy was still good young people were sold the idea that they should 'follow their passions'.  The jobs were supposed to come.  I didn't take out a mortgage for a property I couldn't afford; I didn't participate in credit default swaps or create a Ponzi scheme.  I went to college and educated myself.  I've spent countless hours at libraries educating myself.  I've taken care of sick relatives and taught immigrants how to read and write in English--with no pay.  But I'm not responsible enough to run a retail store. I could have spent those hours drinking or partying or whatever else, but I've spent them trying to 'improve' myself in different ways because I seriously feel like I'm damaged goods.  Why else can't I pin down a full-time job with some benefits? 

I hope someone can find something of value in my words.

"FUCK!"

I am in my mid-20s. I have a university education. I started working when I was 14. I have chemical burns and scars over my hands from dealing with caustic cleaning chemicals. I did not want that to be my life like my uncles. I had to get out. I worked very hard in high school and volunteered and was the member of clubs and all of that great stuff. I got into a good university and worked hard. I took a language course, took things that I loved. I worked through my degree - I was even a janitor in a building that I lived in, because I needed the cut in rent. I did that for no pay.

After these months of unemployment I have fallen into a pretty major depression. I live at home, I do chores, I look for work. As much as I want to get my life together, I have some great mental health issues to deal with - but have neither the money to purchase medication that may help me, nor the ability to pay for psychological or psychiatric help.

You want to hear the voice of the unemployed? I can give it to you in one word that ought to be printed but never is: 'FUCK!'

"I came to the United States by my own efforts and sacrifices made by my mother. Every cent I spend sets me farther back from home"

I came to the United States on my own accord, by my own efforts and the sacrifices made by my mother. I went to an Ivy League school with a full scholarship and a multitude of promises to keep. I graduated a year ago with an above average GPA and fearfully in debt to people I had only met my last year of school. I have yet to make it big. I have yet to keep one promise."

That thought is in the back of my mind every single waking moment. My thought process is stuck in a loop, and I keep renegotiating promises.

Even when I am not bent over my beat-up laptop ferociously working on a cover letter, waxing poetic about my somewhat unique attributes and downright delusional passion for a cause that may not provide me with any spendable income, I am thinking about it. I overhear phone conversations and get emails from concerned family friends wondering why I am not pulling my own weight, implying that someone else might think I am just expecting to be financially supported by kind souls, although of course none of them would ever say such a thing. I have worked all the angles: foreign, alternative, open minded, fashion forward, bilingual, docile. I keep reinventing myself at every interview and cold call.

What other people don't understand about my current job is that it is exhausting and dehumanizing. I call it "funemployment" to try and take the edge off during conversations, for both our benefit. There is nothing "fun" about it. It is a 24/7 position with no benefits or holidays. Everyday I have to go job hunting is one more day I have not been able to afford to go back to my country and see my family, to support them during rough times. I exist hyper-aware of anything that could land me in the ER. I know I am not making any money, and I know every cent I spend is not my own. I ponder whether food is worth the mile it sets me farther back from home. I take nothing for granted. At best I am just treading water, but I swear sometimes I hold on to my neck to just make sure I haven't drowned yet.

"Not having a job can be debilitating ... But the experience of unemployment made me a better person."

Who among us would not attempt to concoct the proverbial lemonade from the bitter fruit of joblessness.  I tried grantwriting, took dance classes, made pairs of earrings, and ran at the gym with worn sneakers that I felt guilty about replacing. That was the fun part of funemployment.

The f-u part of f-unemployment was a darker, lonelier existence.  I moved back home and lost my claim to independence.  Some mornings, I didn't know why I was getting up.  My job applications went neglected or rejected.  In public, I hid my Jurassic flip phone.

But I had family and friends and one choice left:  to strip life down to a barer essential.  I stripped the veneers of a corporate lawyer, a graduate of good schools, a smug apostle of manners and discipline so easily practiced in my former life.  And something unexpected happened:  I began to appreciate anew the people and fortune and honesty around and within me.

The experience of unemployment made me a better person. But if it had been an informed choice, if I could have seen in high definition the desolate canyons and wastelands before me, I'm not sure that I would do it over again.  I might choose to remain a lesser-developed being.  Not that it matters.  There are no druthers in the end.  For better or for worse, with little prognostication, the sky fell onto my head, and I had to crawl my way out.

Not having a job can be debilitating.  It stings and cripples and can make you fold.  But if you can manage it, try to have hope.  And if you can manage it, try something new -- something you always wanted -- some habit, experience, or memory that you can take with you in your later life.

I started a new job this month, and we are feeling each other out.  I am grateful for it and the chance to resume a measure of order.  Into this experience, I am taking with me a memory of placing at a local dance competition after months of training, which I threw myself into, bereft of the lodestar of a job.

I may be an unreliable narrator or explorer. I haven't mapped the entire region ahead.  But I know my expedition has arrived thus far.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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