Every May, after the tasseled hats have fallen to the ground and the graduation parties have died down, hundreds of thousands of new graduates enter the workforce. Or at least that’s the plan.
Late last year, national unemployment for graduates aged 20–24 hit 10.6 percent. USA Today and the Wall Street Journal declared the class of 2009 unlucky, even cursed, their prospects of finding work grim. They did, after all, graduate into the worst economy since the Great Depression.
Andy Cunningham leans forward in his booth-seat at PB Sushi. He wears jeans, a pair of kelly-green Converse sneakers, and a hoodie that reads SDSU Alumni. The sweatshirt, he tells me, is a reminder that although he did his part and got the much-touted college degree, it hasn’t done a thing for him.
A few days earlier, the 6-foot-2, 200-pound finance major with the still-undefined face of a boy told me in an email, “I graduated from SDSU in December  and have been having a hell of a time finding a job.”
Andy is more than a little disappointed in the way things have turned out since graduation, and he has a lot to say about it. Now, over Philadelphia rolls and Kirin beer, he complains about the false promises of parents and professors, suggesting that “they’re pushing college too much on people” and that “vocational schools and trade jobs are where the money is.” Still, he admits that even if he had the choice to make all over again, he’d most likely choose college.
He reminisces about the drinks at Toronado (a beer bar in North Park) and about the Bloody Mary Superior served (with shrimp, bacon, and a pickle) on Sundays at Small Bar in University Heights. Before graduation, he partied two or three nights a week and lived a life fairly unconcerned about the future.
These days, the best it gets is Pabst Blue Ribbon in a can and the Lakers on TV.
“I kind of feel like the grasshopper in the ‘Ant and the Grasshopper’ fable, where the ant saves up all winter and the grasshopper just goes out and spends,” he says.
Andy was in his junior year when the real estate bubble burst and the economy tanked. By the time he graduated, jobs in finance were nearly impossible to come by. Even his extracurricular activities as vice president of marketing with San Diego State’s Finance and Investment Society and his yearlong paid internship with Brandes Investment Partners haven’t been of much use in his job search.
For months, he’s applied for everything from accounting and finance to office-assistant positions on job-search sites such as Career Builder, Monster, and craigslist. He’s also handed out his résumé at job fairs, banks, and retail shops in Fashion Valley and Mission Valley malls.
How many hours a day does he look?
“At least an hour to two hours, five days a week.” (No weekends, he says, because he’s hoping those two days will give employers time to post new jobs before his return to craigslist on Mondays.)
Andy admits that he could, perhaps, work a little harder, but he also emphasizes that the effort he does put out is consistent and steady.
So far, the only thing his search has yielded is a two-hour-a-day (9:00 p.m.–11:00 p.m.), ten-dollar-an-hour gig “crunching numbers” for an adult entertainment company.
It’s not what he imagined he’d do with a four-year degree in finance, but, he says, “At this point, I’ll take what I can get.”
Andy recognizes that the failed economy means he’s now competing with experienced financial types for entry-level jobs, but he doesn’t blame the economy for his troubles. Instead, he suggests that his expectations might have been unrealistic to begin with.
“My whole life I’ve been told just go to college, get your degree, and you’ll be set,” he says. “And I’m kind of coming to terms with the harsh reality that it’s not quite like that. Who wants a 23-year-old managing their money?”
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On a brilliant Sunday in March, four more graduates from the class of 2009 join me at the Blind Lady Ale House in Normal Heights to discuss life after college. They, too, have this idea that the economy may not be the only thing impeding their search for work.
Amid the din of happy Sunday-afternoon drinkers, we sit on bar stools at a long, wooden table near the window and indulge in prosciutto pizza and fancy beer. Matt, 22, sits directly across from me. Two inches of foam crown his black stout beer. When the conversation rolls around to diminished expectations, he laughs about his job at the University of the Rockies, an online for-profit graduate school. It’s the title of “enrollment advisor” that makes him laugh. It’s “a warm, cuddly way of saying that I do phone sales,” he says.
Matt knows he’s lucky to have a job, especially one that’s full time, pays $20 an hour, and includes benefits. But it’s not the kind of work he expected after graduating from college with a bachelor of arts in studio art.
“The sales part of it is the last thing I wanted to do.”
He tells a story of a conversation he had with his mother when he was seven.
“Mom, you know what I hate?”
“When people try to sell me things.”
“I still hate it,” he says. But at the moment, he doesn’t feel as though he has much choice. His private schooling at Westmont College in Santa Barbara gave him “all kinds of lofty ideals and not a lot of practical skills” and, he says, “plenty of financial debt.”
“Plenty” means over $100,000 in private loans because his parents (a mailman and a school lunch lady) make too much to qualify for federal loans.
“It’s going to end up being a little over $120,000 by the time I pay it all back,” he says.
Although Matt lives at home with his parents in Spring Valley, he doesn’t have a free ride. What he would pay in rent for a small studio (about $1000 a month) he instead pays toward his student loans. (When the forbearance on his final loan expires, his monthly payments will increase to nearly $1500.) His parents also charge him $100 a month for utilities and internet service, and he buys his own groceries. Periodically, when his mom cooks dinner, he might take leftovers for lunch, but otherwise, he’s on his own.