A History of the Job Market for New College Grads (in 3 Graphs)

Congrats class of 2013: you weren't the class of 2010.
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College graduation -- sure, it's an occasion to celebrate for most undergrads, but in this economy we know it's also a time of gnawing, career-oriented dread for plenty others. Even at Harvard, where Oprah is sharing some words of wisdom at commencement today, just 61 percent of soon-to-be grads told the Crimson that they had an actual job lined up. One in ten said they had no set plans for the future. Eesh. 

But hey, at least they weren't class of 2011, 2010...or 1975. In honor of the cap and gown season, I've put together a brief history of the job market for new bachelor's degree holders in charts (how else, right?). It turns out the last few lean years might not be totally without precedent. And as the job market has improved more broadly, it seems the awful unemployment rates young grads experienced post-recession really are finally fading into memory. 

First, the recent past. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, bachelor's degree holders between the ages of 20 and 24 saw average unemployment more than double from 2007 through 2011. But by 2012, it was falling quickly, back to within about a point of where it was at the turn of the century, when times weren't exactly awful. None of this says anything about underemployment -- students taking jobs they're overqualified for just to pay rent -- but it's an encouraging sign nonetheless.

And worth noting: these numbers track Americans with just a bachelor's degree, not students who got a quick master's. 

NCES_History_of_the_Job_Market_College_Grads_2.JPG

But how about the long view? Every so many years, the Department of Education surveys classes of college graduates about their post-campus lives, and so we have full-time employment rates dating back to the 1970's.* The class of 2008, which graduated head on into the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the financial meltdown, appears to have had the worst time finding work of any cohort in around three decades. Things would have only gotten worse in the immediate next few years.  

On the other hand, it pretty clearly wasn't a picnic graduating into President Ford's economy either. True, college graduates then didn't have to worry about student debt in the same way as today, and so many might have felt more comfortable waiting for the perfect job or bumming around a bit. But that 66.8 percent employment rate for the class of '75 at least suggests that Millennials aren't the first generation to have trouble landing post-college work. 

NCES_History_of_the_Job_Market_College_Grads_1_FIXED.JPG

And of course, all of this comes with a caveat: not all majors are the same. Historically, degrees in business, engineering, and health professions have been far more likely to lead to an immediate job than ones in humanities, psychology, or social sciences. During the recession, it seems, the engineers, computer scientists, and business kids also didn't see their employment prospects suffer as badly as their less mathematically inclined peers. 

NCES_History_of_the_Job_Market_College_Grads_3.JPG

So take heart, class of 2013. No matter how worrisome the economy might still seem, someone's seen worse. And if you picked the right major, you might not be facing too much career trouble at all. 

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*There's a tiny bit of funkiness in the Department of Education's data. Namely, it reports different employment rates for the class of 2000 depending on which table you look at, with either 84 percent or 76 percent employed. I chose the number from the more recent version. 

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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