The Growth of College Grads in Dead-End Jobs (in 2 Graphs)

The rise of the baristas. 
Reuters

These post-recession years have not been gentle on young college grads, and by now, you've heard plenty of stories about students matriculating from campus to life as a barista. But how many B.A.'s are really out there toiling in dead-end jobs? A new report from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York offers us an answer this week, which I think can be summed up as: Fewer than you probably think, but definitely more than we're used to.

Using Census data, the bank's researchers found that, through 2012, roughly 44 percent of working, young college graduates were "underemployed," meaning they were in a job that did not require their degree. While the number sounds pretty daunting, it's not actually without precedent. It's about the same rate as in 1994.   

But there's underemployment, and then there's underemployment. It's one thing to find yourself as a decently paid administrative assistant. It's another to find yourself walking dogs to make ends meet. And during the last decade, the underemployed have come to look less like administrative assistants and more like dog walkers.  

Here's the math. Since the dotcom bust, the share of underemployed college grads in what the Fed calls "good non-college jobs," which today pay at least $45,000 a year,* has declined from more than half to slightly over a third. Meanwhile, the share in "low-wage jobs," which today pay $25,000 a year or less, has risen to about 20 percent, from roughly 15 percent. Do little back-of-the- envelope math,** and you find that about 9 percent of all working college graduates are stuck in jobs that pay less than $25,000, or probably somewhere south of $12.50 an hour.  

That rough 9 percent figure is the good news here. Not nearly so many graduates as you might imagine are grinding coffee beans for a living (and to those who do it because they truly love coffee, more power to you). On the other hand, overall unemployment is also still high for young B.A.'s. So fewer are working at all, and more are truly clinging to the bottom rungs of the job market. 

In a sense, this reflects a shift in the broader economy; for more than a decade now, middle-class jobs have given way to low-wage service work. And young college graduates haven't been spared the change. 


*And indeed, in most majors, college graduates come out of school making closer to $30,000 than $45,000. 

**Said math: Take the 44 percent of all working grads who are underemployed and multiply it by 20 percent. You get 8 percent of the whole. 

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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