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The emptiness of 2010 SDSU grads

What have you done for us lately?

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 [2009] 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?”

∗ ∗ ∗

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?”

“What, Matthew?”

“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.

Matt gives himself a $10-a-day budget for food. Aside from that, he spends money only on drawing classes or software that will help get his skills up to a marketable level. Once that’s been accomplished, he can begin to build his portfolio. Eventually, he’d like to do commercial illustration and concept design for film and video games.

“It’s at least a year or two off before I get there,” he says.

Next to him, Gwynn, in the long print skirt and tank top, nods her head with understanding.

She, too, says, “I’ve graduated with a lot of information but not any sort of skill to apply it.”

After four years working toward a degree in Islamic and Arabic studies at San Diego State University, she’d expected to land a job with the CIA or the Department of Defense — not with the sales department at A-1 Self Storage. She knows she’s fortunate to have a job, even if management does keep her exactly one hour short of full time so she won’t qualify for benefits. Luckily, Gwynn shares a one-bedroom apartment with three people, so her rent is a mere $300 per month. She hopes eventually to pull in more than the $11 an hour she makes now.

“I went to a job fair at SDSU, where the CIA had a booth,” says the 24-year-old. “In the course of the conversation [the recruiter] basically said, ‘Come back when you have a fellowship or an internship abroad.’”

School was helpful in that she learned to read and write Arabic, but because she didn’t have the means to travel and practice the language conversationally, she can’t find work as a translator. Gwynn’s plan is to find her way to graduate school via a job with the State Department, or the Navy or Air Force, or anyone that will help her pay for a graduate degree or send her abroad for “real-world experience.” She’s concentrating her energy on studying for the policy tests required to get the consulting jobs she’s hoping for and to keep up with the Arabic she did learn.

Language, she says, is a skill, but “without speaking it, it doesn’t count for much.”

∗ ∗ ∗

In 2007, a company called Hart Research Associates conducted a survey that resulted in a report by the National Leadership Council for Liberal Education and America’s Promise, and the Association of American Colleges and Universities. The 2007 report found that 63 percent of employers believe “college graduates lack essential skills to succeed in today’s economy.”

In the fall of 2009, Hart Research Associates conducted another survey on behalf of the Association of American Colleges and Universities and found that “only one in four employers thinks that two-year and four-year colleges are doing a good job in preparing students for the challenges of the global economy.”

On the day I sit in the Blind Lady Ale House with Gwynn, Matt, and the others, I don’t yet know these statistics. And yet we spend nearly our whole afternoon discussing how unprepared these graduates realized they were when it came time to start looking for work.

Although Fern, the bubbly 22-year-old to my left, lives with her parents and doesn’t have the same financial stresses as Matt and Gwynn (because she has no bills or expenses other than those required for socializing), she can relate when her friends suggest that their schooling didn’t quite set them up with everything they needed to compete for jobs in the current economy. Soon after graduation, she realized that even though she received a bachelor’s degree in physics and art with an emphasis in graphics, she doesn’t have the design skills or the portfolio to land a job in graphic design.

Despite all the praise she received in college about her art, as soon as she graduated, she thought, “Oh, shoot. I’m a very, very, very tiny, inexperienced fish who really isn’t worth much at all in this very, very big pond. And that sucks.”

In an attempt both to expand her skills and build her design portfolio, Fern turned to volunteering. She designs T-shirts, brochures, and other promotional materials for Community Coaching Center in Hillcrest and provides merchandise design for the Eugene Bowman Economic Empowerment Center in City Heights. This is in addition to a few hours per week of paid transcription and video captioning for Student Disability Services at San Diego State University.

Scott, whose mustacheless goatee adds sternness to his already serious demeanor, is perhaps the luckiest fellow at the table — at least in terms of time spent postgraduation in one’s chosen field of study. The 22-year-old graduated with a bachelor of science in engineering physics and a minor in chemistry, and he currently works a full-time (albeit unpaid) internship at Silicon Kinetics — building a robot, of all things. He knows he’s lucky to have the luxury of taking a full-time internship without having to worry about money or bills (because his grandparents paid for his college education and because he, too, lives with his parents), but he also feels fortunate to have the internship, especially given the gaps in his knowledge and experience.

“A lot of work consists of keeping track of the screws,” he says, emphasizing the importance of organizational skills, which is not the only thing he didn’t learn in school. “Proficiency in Solidworks, which is a 3-D [computer-aided design] program, would have been nice. And knowing how to solder before I came in would have been good.”

Although Scott doesn’t say much in the group setting at Blind Lady, he emails me later and gives me more details about his job.

“My work specifically is to document the assembly of the Autohandler, which is a Cartesian [or linear] robot that takes bio samples from a tray and places them onto another tray so an optical scanner can take measurements. It’s basically an arm.”

Building a robot sounds like the perfect job for a physics major. Scott agrees that it is. But he couldn’t help being disappointed that he didn’t receive a single job offer after graduating from college.

“The American Institute of Physics sent me a questionnaire about my bachelor’s, and looking at their site made me sad,” he wrote. “People who graduated two years before us would have multiple job offers upon graduation from companies trying to recruit them, not from them asking companies if they’re hiring. Just because they had suffered through and graduated in a hard science.”

Steve Schmidt of the Union-Tribune confirms Scott’s complaint in a May 2009 article (“Job Market Casts Shadow on Graduation”). “The troubled market follows several flush years for young job hunters,” writes Schmidt. “As recently as 2007, it wasn’t unusual for engineering students, computer science majors, and others to receive multiple job offers, even before graduation.”

Scott and Fern have a running joke between them that they’ll both be able to get great jobs in their chosen fields as soon as they “get more awesome.”

It’s kind of cute, maybe even funny, but Scott says he feels “guilty about being a little bitter about postgraduation options. There’s a bit of an entitlement issue going on.”

∗ ∗ ∗

Funny he should use that word. Entitlement. Last May, right around the time when the class of 2009 donned their caps and gowns, San Diego State University professor Dr. Jean Twenge published a brief article entitled “Self-Entitlement of Grads Can Be a Curse.” In the article, she writes, “Even before the recession made jobs more precarious, it was clear that the transition between college and the working world would be difficult for many [graduates].”

Dr. Twenge is the author of Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled — and More Miserable Than Ever Before and coauthor (with W. Keith Campbell) of The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement. The former book asserts that the overuse of such phrases as “You can be anything you want to be” and “You must love yourself before you can love someone else” has created a generation whose “aim for the stars” expectations clash with the realities they face in adulthood. The latter examines the hows, whys, and root causes of narcissism in American culture and provides examples of the behaviors and attitudes that reflect a rise in narcissistic values.

The 14th chapter of Narcissism offers several examples of entitlement, including when a person “graduate[s] from college and expect[s] to get a fulfilling job with a six-figure salary right away.”

The example reminds me of Andy Cunningham, the San Diego State University alumnus with the sweatshirt to prove it. The bulk of his complaints are aimed at the false promises he believes he was fed. He didn’t come up with the expectations on his own. In fact, he says, his finance professors used salary as “a carrot on the end of a stick. [In] a lot of my upper-division classes, the first day the teacher would come in and go on CareerBuilder [.com] and show us financial-analyst jobs that supposedly we’d be able to get. They were anywhere from $40,000 to $50,000 [per year], and they really encouraged me to work harder and get involved, which is why I did the extracurricular stuff with the student organization.”

Once he had graduated and started looking for work, however, Andy realized that $40,000–$50,000 was optimistic, so he adjusted his expectations. “I was ready for anything from $35,000,” he says.

He admits, though, that he turned down the “smile and dial” commission-only job offers he received during a career fair because they were from insurance and investment companies “looking for sales people to do cold calling, build up accounts, basically the grunt work.”

∗ ∗ ∗

“I wrote Generation Me in 2005, and it was published in 2006,” Dr. Twenge says. “Back then, the economy was doing really well. Even then, I’m in print saying this generation is going to have a very difficult adjustment to adulthood because their expectations are so high as compared to the reality of the workplace.”

There’s no doubt, she says, that the recent graduating classes got a raw deal all around. She feels bad for them because they’re in a “really difficult position.”

“A lot of this is not their fault. The recession is certainly not their fault,” she says. Nor is it their fault that they were raised on the “common theme in our culture in general, this idea that you just have to believe in yourself, you just have to want it and then it will happen.”

One of the major problems young graduates face today, she tells me, is that “it used to be very accepted that you had to work your way up and pay your dues. And now there’s this thing, like, ‘No, I want to be rich and famous overnight.’”

While Dr. Twenge admits that the recession has played a major role in the unemployment and underemployment of recent college graduates, she also believes “there is a fair amount of resistance in this generation to paying your dues.”

This, she says, is in direct opposition with the reality of the workplace because “the idea that you have to work your way up is still alive and well in business. It’s still alive and well in academia and in law and in medicine and in most major professions.”

Andy, too, admits that although “the terrible economy has put me in my place,” he “would definitely take a shortcut if possible.”

∗ ∗ ∗

Last June, Francesca Di Meglio published an article entitled “Jobs: Top Cities for New College Grads” in Businessweek.

Di Meglio claims that Businessweek has “an exclusive new analysis of job market data” that used salary, unemployment, cost-of-living data, and the number of job postings on a site called AfterCollege.com to “create an ‘opportunity map’ of the U.S.”

While the hopeful title might have been the bit of optimism the class of 2009 needed, the online comments suggest that some readers found the article disappointing because the jobs listed are inferior to what they want, expect, and believe they deserve.

Someone named Wayne wrote in from Phoenix (the city holding second place to Indianapolis’s first) to say, “I moved here in January ’08 and I’m still searching for a job I want.”

Rachael S., who received her master’s of business administration degree in 2009, wrote, “After looking at After-College.com, I found an array of jobs that could be filled by anyone, college education or not. After spending thousands on six years of school, am I really expected to take a job as a sales associate making under $10 an hour?”

Fern tells me she perused the jobs on the website as well and found that “maybe 50 out of the 250 were Starbucks barista positions.” Although she claims that learning to be a barista might be a fun experience and that she isn’t opposed to taking a minimum-wage job, she didn’t apply for any of the barista positions because she “wasn’t in job-application mode.”

Fern’s situation may not, however, be typical of her graduating class. She lives at home with her parents, has no bills (she was awarded a free ride for tuition at Westmont, and her parents paid her room and board), and is in no rush to find work. In the fall, she’ll head to China to study Chinese for a year — another free ride, this one funded by her parents. When she says she plans to turn down a $17.98-an-hour, full-time position as an account administrative representative at Kaiser Permanente, for which she recently interviewed, because there are “only four months” until she leaves for China, Matt reaches across the table and pretends to slap her in the head.

On the one hand, Fern says, with the scarcity of jobs right now, “I would be an idiot to turn it down,” but on the other hand, “I’m not really even interested in the job.”

China, she says, is a more “gratifying” option.

Fern says she can “see where [Dr. Twenge] is coming from,” in regard to this generation having higher expectations than previous generations. She also recognizes the privilege of her position but thinks guilt would be “a stupid reason to take [the job].”

Matt has never visited AfterCollege.com, but he says that even if he did need a job now, he would be unlikely to accept a position as a Starbucks barista. In order to make ends meet, he needs to earn at least $15 an hour for a 40-hour workweek. He is, after all, in the hole for over $100,000.

As for Twenge’s theories, Matt agrees, “Our generation tends to be kind of spoiled.” And, more personally, “I appreciate hard work and that it takes effort to get somewhere, but then I definitely have the inclination to want it now.”

While both Matt and Fern can see Twenge’s point of view, the theories of Dr. Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, one of her more outspoken detractors, are more in alignment with their beliefs.

Arnett, a developmental psychologist, wrote Emerging Adult-hood: The Winding Road From the Late Teens Through the Twenties and coined the term “emerging adulthood” to refer to the time in a person’s life between ages 18 and 25 or so. In an essay that argues against Twenge’s theories about the selfishness of young people today (“Suffering, Selfish, Slackers? Myths and Reality About Emerging Adults,” published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence), Arnett writes that the term “was predicated on the assertion that reaching adulthood takes so long today that it is necessary to recognize that a new period of the life course has developed between the end of adolescence and the attainment of young adulthood.”

It is, Arnett writes, “an exceptionally self-focused time, in the sense that it is a time of life when people have the most opportunity to focus on their self-development, including their educational and occupational preparation for adult life.”

And this, he says, does not equate with selfishness.

“On the contrary, there is considerable wisdom in emerging adults’ recognition that they are in a period of life that grants them exceptional freedom and that there are many things they can do during their self-focused time of emerging adulthood that will be inaccessible to them later. Nearly all of them plan eventually to make commitments that structure adult life for most people,” he writes.

This resonates with Matt, who doesn’t know for sure what direction he will take. He considers himself a “jack of all trades” and can see himself being happy doing carpentry, concept redevelopment for video games, or, he laughs, working as a National Geographic photographer.

“There’s so many things I could be content doing,” he says, “all of which require some growing to become that person.”

Fern agrees.

“We’re still young, and it feels like there’s so much time left,” she says. “I don’t know what I see myself doing for the rest of my life, and I’m not in a hurry to figure that out.”

∗ ∗ ∗

Two months after our initial conversations, Matt still works for University of the Rockies, though his low numbers may not be enough to keep him there for long.

Scott now has a $15-an-hour, 30-hour-a-week position at Rigaku Automation in Carlsbad. He spends one day per week at Silicon Kinetics, working with systems engineering and “help[ing] out with technical tasks such as soldering, putting in screws, and the like.”

Fern does odd jobs for her parents for $12 an hour.

Gwynn seems to have disappeared. Last I heard, she’s saving money to get her car fixed. In the meantime, she has to drive side streets and back streets everywhere she goes because her car refuses to accelerate to more than 20 miles an hour.

And then there’s Andy.

After four months of sending out five or so résumés and cover letters on craigslist per day, he landed an interview and then, finally, a job. He’s now a junior analyst at the corporate headquarters of Meridian Auto Parts.

“I guess it’s kind of what I was looking for,” he says. “I’m not really a car person, and I probably wouldn’t have pictured myself in automotive parts, but you know, it’s a job.”

The job pays $16 an hour, full time.

He blew his first check on concert tickets. Toots & the Maytals at Soundwave, Groundation at the Belly Up Tavern, and Rebelution at the Old Mission Beach Athletic Club.

He’ll think about his $12,000 student loan debt later.

Meanwhile, he still sleeps on his sister’s couch.

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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 [2009] 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?”

∗ ∗ ∗

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?”

“What, Matthew?”

“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.

Matt gives himself a $10-a-day budget for food. Aside from that, he spends money only on drawing classes or software that will help get his skills up to a marketable level. Once that’s been accomplished, he can begin to build his portfolio. Eventually, he’d like to do commercial illustration and concept design for film and video games.

“It’s at least a year or two off before I get there,” he says.

Next to him, Gwynn, in the long print skirt and tank top, nods her head with understanding.

She, too, says, “I’ve graduated with a lot of information but not any sort of skill to apply it.”

After four years working toward a degree in Islamic and Arabic studies at San Diego State University, she’d expected to land a job with the CIA or the Department of Defense — not with the sales department at A-1 Self Storage. She knows she’s fortunate to have a job, even if management does keep her exactly one hour short of full time so she won’t qualify for benefits. Luckily, Gwynn shares a one-bedroom apartment with three people, so her rent is a mere $300 per month. She hopes eventually to pull in more than the $11 an hour she makes now.

“I went to a job fair at SDSU, where the CIA had a booth,” says the 24-year-old. “In the course of the conversation [the recruiter] basically said, ‘Come back when you have a fellowship or an internship abroad.’”

School was helpful in that she learned to read and write Arabic, but because she didn’t have the means to travel and practice the language conversationally, she can’t find work as a translator. Gwynn’s plan is to find her way to graduate school via a job with the State Department, or the Navy or Air Force, or anyone that will help her pay for a graduate degree or send her abroad for “real-world experience.” She’s concentrating her energy on studying for the policy tests required to get the consulting jobs she’s hoping for and to keep up with the Arabic she did learn.

Language, she says, is a skill, but “without speaking it, it doesn’t count for much.”

∗ ∗ ∗

In 2007, a company called Hart Research Associates conducted a survey that resulted in a report by the National Leadership Council for Liberal Education and America’s Promise, and the Association of American Colleges and Universities. The 2007 report found that 63 percent of employers believe “college graduates lack essential skills to succeed in today’s economy.”

In the fall of 2009, Hart Research Associates conducted another survey on behalf of the Association of American Colleges and Universities and found that “only one in four employers thinks that two-year and four-year colleges are doing a good job in preparing students for the challenges of the global economy.”

On the day I sit in the Blind Lady Ale House with Gwynn, Matt, and the others, I don’t yet know these statistics. And yet we spend nearly our whole afternoon discussing how unprepared these graduates realized they were when it came time to start looking for work.

Although Fern, the bubbly 22-year-old to my left, lives with her parents and doesn’t have the same financial stresses as Matt and Gwynn (because she has no bills or expenses other than those required for socializing), she can relate when her friends suggest that their schooling didn’t quite set them up with everything they needed to compete for jobs in the current economy. Soon after graduation, she realized that even though she received a bachelor’s degree in physics and art with an emphasis in graphics, she doesn’t have the design skills or the portfolio to land a job in graphic design.

Despite all the praise she received in college about her art, as soon as she graduated, she thought, “Oh, shoot. I’m a very, very, very tiny, inexperienced fish who really isn’t worth much at all in this very, very big pond. And that sucks.”

In an attempt both to expand her skills and build her design portfolio, Fern turned to volunteering. She designs T-shirts, brochures, and other promotional materials for Community Coaching Center in Hillcrest and provides merchandise design for the Eugene Bowman Economic Empowerment Center in City Heights. This is in addition to a few hours per week of paid transcription and video captioning for Student Disability Services at San Diego State University.

Scott, whose mustacheless goatee adds sternness to his already serious demeanor, is perhaps the luckiest fellow at the table — at least in terms of time spent postgraduation in one’s chosen field of study. The 22-year-old graduated with a bachelor of science in engineering physics and a minor in chemistry, and he currently works a full-time (albeit unpaid) internship at Silicon Kinetics — building a robot, of all things. He knows he’s lucky to have the luxury of taking a full-time internship without having to worry about money or bills (because his grandparents paid for his college education and because he, too, lives with his parents), but he also feels fortunate to have the internship, especially given the gaps in his knowledge and experience.

“A lot of work consists of keeping track of the screws,” he says, emphasizing the importance of organizational skills, which is not the only thing he didn’t learn in school. “Proficiency in Solidworks, which is a 3-D [computer-aided design] program, would have been nice. And knowing how to solder before I came in would have been good.”

Although Scott doesn’t say much in the group setting at Blind Lady, he emails me later and gives me more details about his job.

“My work specifically is to document the assembly of the Autohandler, which is a Cartesian [or linear] robot that takes bio samples from a tray and places them onto another tray so an optical scanner can take measurements. It’s basically an arm.”

Building a robot sounds like the perfect job for a physics major. Scott agrees that it is. But he couldn’t help being disappointed that he didn’t receive a single job offer after graduating from college.

“The American Institute of Physics sent me a questionnaire about my bachelor’s, and looking at their site made me sad,” he wrote. “People who graduated two years before us would have multiple job offers upon graduation from companies trying to recruit them, not from them asking companies if they’re hiring. Just because they had suffered through and graduated in a hard science.”

Steve Schmidt of the Union-Tribune confirms Scott’s complaint in a May 2009 article (“Job Market Casts Shadow on Graduation”). “The troubled market follows several flush years for young job hunters,” writes Schmidt. “As recently as 2007, it wasn’t unusual for engineering students, computer science majors, and others to receive multiple job offers, even before graduation.”

Scott and Fern have a running joke between them that they’ll both be able to get great jobs in their chosen fields as soon as they “get more awesome.”

It’s kind of cute, maybe even funny, but Scott says he feels “guilty about being a little bitter about postgraduation options. There’s a bit of an entitlement issue going on.”

∗ ∗ ∗

Funny he should use that word. Entitlement. Last May, right around the time when the class of 2009 donned their caps and gowns, San Diego State University professor Dr. Jean Twenge published a brief article entitled “Self-Entitlement of Grads Can Be a Curse.” In the article, she writes, “Even before the recession made jobs more precarious, it was clear that the transition between college and the working world would be difficult for many [graduates].”

Dr. Twenge is the author of Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled — and More Miserable Than Ever Before and coauthor (with W. Keith Campbell) of The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement. The former book asserts that the overuse of such phrases as “You can be anything you want to be” and “You must love yourself before you can love someone else” has created a generation whose “aim for the stars” expectations clash with the realities they face in adulthood. The latter examines the hows, whys, and root causes of narcissism in American culture and provides examples of the behaviors and attitudes that reflect a rise in narcissistic values.

The 14th chapter of Narcissism offers several examples of entitlement, including when a person “graduate[s] from college and expect[s] to get a fulfilling job with a six-figure salary right away.”

The example reminds me of Andy Cunningham, the San Diego State University alumnus with the sweatshirt to prove it. The bulk of his complaints are aimed at the false promises he believes he was fed. He didn’t come up with the expectations on his own. In fact, he says, his finance professors used salary as “a carrot on the end of a stick. [In] a lot of my upper-division classes, the first day the teacher would come in and go on CareerBuilder [.com] and show us financial-analyst jobs that supposedly we’d be able to get. They were anywhere from $40,000 to $50,000 [per year], and they really encouraged me to work harder and get involved, which is why I did the extracurricular stuff with the student organization.”

Once he had graduated and started looking for work, however, Andy realized that $40,000–$50,000 was optimistic, so he adjusted his expectations. “I was ready for anything from $35,000,” he says.

He admits, though, that he turned down the “smile and dial” commission-only job offers he received during a career fair because they were from insurance and investment companies “looking for sales people to do cold calling, build up accounts, basically the grunt work.”

∗ ∗ ∗

“I wrote Generation Me in 2005, and it was published in 2006,” Dr. Twenge says. “Back then, the economy was doing really well. Even then, I’m in print saying this generation is going to have a very difficult adjustment to adulthood because their expectations are so high as compared to the reality of the workplace.”

There’s no doubt, she says, that the recent graduating classes got a raw deal all around. She feels bad for them because they’re in a “really difficult position.”

“A lot of this is not their fault. The recession is certainly not their fault,” she says. Nor is it their fault that they were raised on the “common theme in our culture in general, this idea that you just have to believe in yourself, you just have to want it and then it will happen.”

One of the major problems young graduates face today, she tells me, is that “it used to be very accepted that you had to work your way up and pay your dues. And now there’s this thing, like, ‘No, I want to be rich and famous overnight.’”

While Dr. Twenge admits that the recession has played a major role in the unemployment and underemployment of recent college graduates, she also believes “there is a fair amount of resistance in this generation to paying your dues.”

This, she says, is in direct opposition with the reality of the workplace because “the idea that you have to work your way up is still alive and well in business. It’s still alive and well in academia and in law and in medicine and in most major professions.”

Andy, too, admits that although “the terrible economy has put me in my place,” he “would definitely take a shortcut if possible.”

∗ ∗ ∗

Last June, Francesca Di Meglio published an article entitled “Jobs: Top Cities for New College Grads” in Businessweek.

Di Meglio claims that Businessweek has “an exclusive new analysis of job market data” that used salary, unemployment, cost-of-living data, and the number of job postings on a site called AfterCollege.com to “create an ‘opportunity map’ of the U.S.”

While the hopeful title might have been the bit of optimism the class of 2009 needed, the online comments suggest that some readers found the article disappointing because the jobs listed are inferior to what they want, expect, and believe they deserve.

Someone named Wayne wrote in from Phoenix (the city holding second place to Indianapolis’s first) to say, “I moved here in January ’08 and I’m still searching for a job I want.”

Rachael S., who received her master’s of business administration degree in 2009, wrote, “After looking at After-College.com, I found an array of jobs that could be filled by anyone, college education or not. After spending thousands on six years of school, am I really expected to take a job as a sales associate making under $10 an hour?”

Fern tells me she perused the jobs on the website as well and found that “maybe 50 out of the 250 were Starbucks barista positions.” Although she claims that learning to be a barista might be a fun experience and that she isn’t opposed to taking a minimum-wage job, she didn’t apply for any of the barista positions because she “wasn’t in job-application mode.”

Fern’s situation may not, however, be typical of her graduating class. She lives at home with her parents, has no bills (she was awarded a free ride for tuition at Westmont, and her parents paid her room and board), and is in no rush to find work. In the fall, she’ll head to China to study Chinese for a year — another free ride, this one funded by her parents. When she says she plans to turn down a $17.98-an-hour, full-time position as an account administrative representative at Kaiser Permanente, for which she recently interviewed, because there are “only four months” until she leaves for China, Matt reaches across the table and pretends to slap her in the head.

On the one hand, Fern says, with the scarcity of jobs right now, “I would be an idiot to turn it down,” but on the other hand, “I’m not really even interested in the job.”

China, she says, is a more “gratifying” option.

Fern says she can “see where [Dr. Twenge] is coming from,” in regard to this generation having higher expectations than previous generations. She also recognizes the privilege of her position but thinks guilt would be “a stupid reason to take [the job].”

Matt has never visited AfterCollege.com, but he says that even if he did need a job now, he would be unlikely to accept a position as a Starbucks barista. In order to make ends meet, he needs to earn at least $15 an hour for a 40-hour workweek. He is, after all, in the hole for over $100,000.

As for Twenge’s theories, Matt agrees, “Our generation tends to be kind of spoiled.” And, more personally, “I appreciate hard work and that it takes effort to get somewhere, but then I definitely have the inclination to want it now.”

While both Matt and Fern can see Twenge’s point of view, the theories of Dr. Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, one of her more outspoken detractors, are more in alignment with their beliefs.

Arnett, a developmental psychologist, wrote Emerging Adult-hood: The Winding Road From the Late Teens Through the Twenties and coined the term “emerging adulthood” to refer to the time in a person’s life between ages 18 and 25 or so. In an essay that argues against Twenge’s theories about the selfishness of young people today (“Suffering, Selfish, Slackers? Myths and Reality About Emerging Adults,” published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence), Arnett writes that the term “was predicated on the assertion that reaching adulthood takes so long today that it is necessary to recognize that a new period of the life course has developed between the end of adolescence and the attainment of young adulthood.”

It is, Arnett writes, “an exceptionally self-focused time, in the sense that it is a time of life when people have the most opportunity to focus on their self-development, including their educational and occupational preparation for adult life.”

And this, he says, does not equate with selfishness.

“On the contrary, there is considerable wisdom in emerging adults’ recognition that they are in a period of life that grants them exceptional freedom and that there are many things they can do during their self-focused time of emerging adulthood that will be inaccessible to them later. Nearly all of them plan eventually to make commitments that structure adult life for most people,” he writes.

This resonates with Matt, who doesn’t know for sure what direction he will take. He considers himself a “jack of all trades” and can see himself being happy doing carpentry, concept redevelopment for video games, or, he laughs, working as a National Geographic photographer.

“There’s so many things I could be content doing,” he says, “all of which require some growing to become that person.”

Fern agrees.

“We’re still young, and it feels like there’s so much time left,” she says. “I don’t know what I see myself doing for the rest of my life, and I’m not in a hurry to figure that out.”

∗ ∗ ∗

Two months after our initial conversations, Matt still works for University of the Rockies, though his low numbers may not be enough to keep him there for long.

Scott now has a $15-an-hour, 30-hour-a-week position at Rigaku Automation in Carlsbad. He spends one day per week at Silicon Kinetics, working with systems engineering and “help[ing] out with technical tasks such as soldering, putting in screws, and the like.”

Fern does odd jobs for her parents for $12 an hour.

Gwynn seems to have disappeared. Last I heard, she’s saving money to get her car fixed. In the meantime, she has to drive side streets and back streets everywhere she goes because her car refuses to accelerate to more than 20 miles an hour.

And then there’s Andy.

After four months of sending out five or so résumés and cover letters on craigslist per day, he landed an interview and then, finally, a job. He’s now a junior analyst at the corporate headquarters of Meridian Auto Parts.

“I guess it’s kind of what I was looking for,” he says. “I’m not really a car person, and I probably wouldn’t have pictured myself in automotive parts, but you know, it’s a job.”

The job pays $16 an hour, full time.

He blew his first check on concert tickets. Toots & the Maytals at Soundwave, Groundation at the Belly Up Tavern, and Rebelution at the Old Mission Beach Athletic Club.

He’ll think about his $12,000 student loan debt later.

Meanwhile, he still sleeps on his sister’s couch.

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Comments
9

Wow, I guess I really was that lucky/blessed... I only spent about 5 months unemployed after I graduated last year. And with very little debt thanks to the federal government and my mother's job.

I agree with Fern, there's no need to take a job you don't want, especially if there's something better coming up. I turned down a job offer with my internship. I knew I wasn't going to be happy there and it was temporary. Being self-focused doesn't mean one is narcissistic, it means one has the luxury to only have to think about oneself. Thinking about others becomes secondary, unless the individual decides to make it a primary focus...

As for Gwynn, with the language studies, volunteering at a non profit, or applying, will help with her lack of spoken language skills; as will hanging out in City Heights and chatting up strangers. Everyone loves it when non native speakers try and speak your native tongue.

Otherwise, I was unimpressed with the graduates. 35k a year isn't enough? I was overjoyed with my job and I'll only gross about 29k. That's more than my mother earns now, and (I think) more than my older brother grossed last year.

As one of my teachers put it, one can learn and grow immensely from just one year of employment. So, Andy, the finance major, isn't much into cars. He works w a car company now, use that and look for something within the company in finance. Selling enrollment? Don't think of it as selling people an education, think of it as giving people hope for the future. Come next year, the economy will keep going up, and the degree will be be more useful than ever. Don't chase the money, chase the dream.

Idk if it's me and my circumstances, but I never expected a great job to just materialize. I never expected 35k a year. I would have been happy with a 10/hr part time job. I knew that whatever employment I found was only going to be stepping stone towards what I truly want. A step towards becoming who I want to be.

July 29, 2010

Blueevey is wise beyond his/her years. I enjoyed reading the comment as much as reading the article. Such insight! I'm sure this person will be a huge success in life--if for no other reason but the attitude and problem-solving advice shown here.

Aug. 4, 2010

If the Reader was reaching its target readership, this piece should have had hundreds of comments. There are thousands or tens of thousands of young grads out there who are in the same situation. Where are their comments? Or do they just not read the . . . Reader?

Aug. 5, 2010

Visduh, what exactly is the Reader's target readership? It's a very eclectic publication, I never considered that college grads were the target. I'm old, comparatively, I certainly hope they're targeting me, too ;)

Aug. 5, 2010

In response to post #4, I can say that if you are old, I'm older still. But for as long as I've known the Reader its aim seemed to be toward the younger, single local population, and those whose orientation was to the beach communities. The advertisers sure seem to think so. On those occasions when I actually see a printed copy of the product, the ads that predominate involve weight loss, tanning/training/toning, boob jobs, bikinis and that sort of thing. There's a great amount of space devoted to the club scene with extensive reviews of rock bands. So, I'd suppose recent college grads would be reading the publication. If they do, they don't post comments.

Over the years the Reader has become more eclectic in its coverage and appeal (I'd suppose) but the emphasis is in my opinion still as described above.

Aug. 6, 2010

I hate to break it to you, Visduh, but the 40-plus crowd invests in weight loss/tanning/toning/boob jobs probably to a greater degree than the under 30 one does, especially in San Diego.

Aug. 6, 2010

MsGrant, I'll have to accept your word for that! I never thought if it that way.

Aug. 6, 2010

Been to Del Mar recently? ;)

Aug. 6, 2010

Reply to 2: Thank you Bohemianopus! I appreciate the love.

Just because people don't comment, it doesn't mean people aren't reading.

Aug. 6, 2010

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