The young and the jobless

Mr Matthew Henderson could not be entering the job market at a worse time.

As a senior at Loyola University, he spent the spring semester interning as a trade policy analyst at the British Consulate in Chicago. But his chances of turning that opportunity into a permanent job after graduation ran headlong into the coronavirus pandemic.

Now he is at home with his family in Indiana, unemployed and considering jobs at Costco and Target to help pay off US$24,000 (S$33,400) in student loans.

“I’m in this bubble of anxiety,” said Mr Henderson, who just turned 21. “I have to pay these, but I have no money to pay them.” Saddled with debt, and entering a job market devastated by the pandemic, he and millions of his contemporaries face an exceptionally dicey future.

Young adults, especially those without a college degree, are particularly vulnerable in recessions. They are new to the job market – with scant on-the-job experience and little or no seniority to protect them from layoffs.

A large body of research – along with the experience of those who came of age in the last recession – shows that young people trying to start their careers during an economic crisis are at a lasting disadvantage. Their wages, opportunities and confidence in the workplace may never fully recover.

And in the worst downturn in generations – one with no bottom in sight – the pattern is beginning to play out with a vengeance.

From March to April, employment dropped by a quarter for workers 20 to 24 years old, and 16 per cent for those aged 20 to 29. That compares with about 12 per cent of workers in their 50s.

Historian David Kennedy and retired general Karl Eikenberry likened the current crisis to wartime, when elders send the young to fight and die.

“It is the young – indebted students and struggling mortgagors, parents supporting families pay cheque to pay cheque, precarious recent graduates and anxious first-time job seekers – whose lives will be most deeply scarred,” they wrote.

For some younger workers, this is the second blow in barely a decade. An analysis by the McKinsey Global Institute noted that “the generation that first entered the job market in the aftermath of the Great Recession is now going through its second ‘once in a lifetime’ downturn.”

Ms Jordan Haggard, 33, graduated from Oklahoma State University in 2009 in the depths of the recession. The job market was dire: When she applied for a job at McDonald’s, she never heard back.

Ten years later, Ms Haggard works as an office manager for a small publishing company in Seattle. She has kept her job during the pandemic, even as some colleagues have been furloughed. But she still feels the effects of 2009.

“I know I will never be able to afford a home in Seattle or even live by myself without a roommate or two,” she said.

Economics professor Lisa Kahn of the University of Rochester tracked young white men who graduated from college in 1979 and 1980 into the jaws of an earlier recession.

Over the next two decades, she found, they got stuck in low-quality, low-paying jobs. Even after the economy recovered, they had a hard time moving into better jobs.

The causes seem varied. Recession graduates, with limited opportunities, will start in jobs that are a worse fit. Once the economy recovers, they will compete for jobs with people who have more experience.

In addition, Professor Kahn noted, recession graduates seem more risk averse. “People who graduate into a recession don’t change jobs as often as people who graduate into booms,” she noted. And these job changes are one of the best ways to get a raise.

Ms Jordan Meier, who just graduated from the University of Missouri, has been hunting for a job as a reporter since February. Despite a strong resume, she has been able to find only a summer internship offering US$250 a month, barely enough for her car payments, and no full-time prospects after that.

“You work for years, you go through school, and you get to this point where you’re preparing to get a job,” she said. “And now I can’t do that. It’s very frustrating.”

It would be unsurprising if this economic upheaval changed the young’s perception of the world, justice and the role of government.

Ms Haggard, the office manager who graduated in 2009, was a Republican in college. She voted for Mr John McCain in the 2008 presidential election. But the recession changed her worldview.

Now, she is far more liberal, and she voted for Mr Bernie Sanders in this year’s Democratic primary in Washington.

There remains a crucial bond between generations: family. The young care for their parents, and do not want them to die of Covid-19. The old care about the financial well-being of their children and grandchildren. They do not want the economy to go into free fall.

Ms Brenda Michael-Haggard, the 59-year-old mother of Ms Jordan Haggard, has felt that people who lose jobs or face other forms of adversity should persevere and simply “find another way to make stuff happen”. Now, she has seen her daughter’s generation experience two economic crises in a little more than a decade and tens of millions of people lose their jobs practically overnight. It has changed how she looks at the world.

“As the mum, golly, it’s too bad,” she said. “It’s something that I wish any one of us could prevent. With Covid, you can’t just pick yourself up and find something different.”


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