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Class of 2013: All Dressed Up and No Place to Work

As members of the class of 2013 stepped on stage to receive their diplomas, the unemployment rate in America stood at 7.6 percent — a bit better than the past four years, but that ain't saying much. Before the financial crisis, students graduating in 2007 faced a much rosier jobless rate of only 4.7 percent. The fact of the matter is that the past four years of high unemployment numbers represent the worst economy the country has suffered in 70 years, and young adults are shouldering a hefty part of the burden.

When you look at the specific numbers for Millennials, things look even bleaker. As of April, the jobless rate for workers under age 25 was an alarming 16.2 percent. A study by the think tank Demos found that 18- to 34-year-olds make up 45 percent of those who can’t find work. That's a lot of stifled human potential.

In a paper, The Class of 2013, researchers at the Economic Policy Institute showed that young people are not searching in vain for jobs because they lack the appropriate skills or the right education, as many pundits would have it. Rather, they can’t find work because of the weak demand for goods and services. It's actually very simple: when a company can’t sell its goods and services because customers don’t have enough money to spend, it can’t hire more workers. You can be Super-Skilled Super Student, and if the economy isn't humming, you'll have trouble landing a job.

The EPI study also found that young people aren’t able to “shelter in school” and wait out the bad economy: the Great Recession didn’t make much of an impact on enrollment rates at college and universities. It also found that the wages of college grads between 2000 and 2012, adjusted wages for inflation, fell 8.5 percent.

"I’m starting to feel numb," said Karen S., who is trying to find a job while ringing up groceries at a Whole Foods in Manhattan. The 24-year-old from Queens graduated in 2012 with a degree in broadcasting. “I did well in my classes, and I looked forward to putting my knowledge and skills to use. Instead I ask, ‘Would you like a bag today?’”

Like Karen, many recent graduates are forced to take McJobs. EPI researchers found that their chances of getting employer-provided health insurance or pensions are fading fast. Between 2000 and 2011, the number of college grads receiving pension coverage from their employer plummeted from 41.5 percent to just 27.2 percent. Many graduates find that when they do get a job, there’s no real opportunity for advancement. They're stuck on a treadmill.

An increasing chorus of voices warns that college has become a bad investment, but the numbers don’t support that theory. Young people who hold a bachelor's degrees have about half the unemployment rate of those with only a high school diploma. When college grads have difficulty finding a job, it tends to worsen the problem for those with less education because they are forced to take less skilled positions, which squeezes out high school grads, and on down the line. It's a chain reaction.

Humanities-bashing has become all the rage as critics point to lower salaries for those majors when compared to majors like engineering, and unclear job paths. Florida governor Rick Scott is among a group of right-leaning politicians aiming to use the employment crisis as an opportunity to defund the humanities altogether: “If I’m going to take money from a citizen to put into education, then I’m going to take that money to create jobs,” he told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. “Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so.” Leon Wieseltier, an editor at The New Republic, suggested in an address to Brandeis University that the anti-humanities crew may be more worried about what those students learn to think about than what sort of job they get, calling “a commitment to the humanities as nothing less than an act of intellectual defiance, of cultural dissidence.”

Regardless of whether you think it would be more helpful to the state of Florida to have more anthropologists, or, say, more bankers, it is a fact that only 27 percent of college grads actually take jobs directly related to their major. Good jobs in the modern economy are often complex and require multiple skills and bases of knowledge, which suggests that more interdisciplinary majors might be better suited to the job market that the siloed majors of traditional univeristy departments.

Defenders of the humanities emphasize that in an increasingly global world, the knowledge of history, literature, and the ability to communicate effectively are highly valuable. Damon Horowitz, director of engineering for Google, spoke at a 2011 Stanford University conference and went so far as to urge students to quit their technology jobs and get a PhD in the humanities. According to Horowitz, understanding how humans communicate, how their cultures develop, and how their history unfolds is as vital to a global company like Google as technical skills. (Where was he when I graduated??)

The battle over the humanities aside, it’s clear that college graduates need to find jobs, and better ones when they do. According to the EPI study, the surest way to help young workers is to support policies that help boost the overall employment rate, like fiscal relief to states, investments in infrastructure, an expanded social safety net, and — how’s this for an idea? — direct job creation programs.

The stakes are enormously high. The young people graduating today will feel the effects of the bad job market for decades to come. The Demos study found that if we simply continue to add jobs at the 2012 average rate, it would be 2022 before the country recovers to full employment and restores decent opportunities for those Americans who are just starting out. In the meantime, a whole generation of bright and capable young people is getting left behind. They are forming opinions of whether or not America is a place where a young person has a fair shot of creating a fulfilling life with meaningful work, and these attidudes will shape the country's future.

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