Saturday, July 17, 2010

Depression and Graduating in a Recession

The state of the economy is a forlorn one, and it's only expected to sink lower before we manage to kick hard enough to breach the surface of this pounding flood. We're falling and, being the very heart of the international circulatory system, we're pulling the rest of the world down with us. Businesses are closing, Space For Lease signs and empty lots in shopping centers have become as commonplace as food courts and directory maps. Houses are foreclosing, people are moving back in with their parents, parents are moving in with their kids. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment is at an average of 9.5%, but they don't figure in the people that are no longer receiving unemployment benefits, and job openings that would have received tens of applicants 3 years ago are now getting several hundred, in some cases over 1,000. In the midst of this crisis, rates of depression and suicidality have significantly increased, and with obviously good reason.

In addition to the sea of people out of work, a steady stream of job seekers are flowing in and the levees can barely hold. This is my generation, most fresh out of college, with expectations set impossibly high and promises burned into our minds that never allowed for a recession. Many of us recall those echoing voices of parents and mentors lamenting the benefits of college degrees: the doors that will open, the opportunities laid out before you, and "oh the places you'll go" as Dr. Seuss so eloquently wrote. But such is not our reality. We left the gates of our educational institutions and met a great brick wall. Only a select few make it through, over, or around.

I graduated in 2008 and found a job almost immediately. It wasn't a great paying job, but it was what I was groomed to expect with a Bachelor's Degree in Psychology, so I hadn't been aware of the sinking economy. By the time I left my job in early 2009, I began to feel the crunch. Sensing my opportunity, as many have by now, I decided to continue my education and obtain my Master's Degree. A few classes from graduating, I hear nothing but stories of people who can't find jobs once that nifty little piece of paper is in their hands, and I wonder where I will be. It's almost as if we are walking off our commencement stage and into a ravine. With student loans building up and no guarantee of a job or economic improvement looming in the future, I am petrified of what will come, and depressed by the options left.

Though employment is slim, there are jobs out there to be had, if one strikes HR the right way. But what has become a painful reality for the recently graduated is that ultimately, we are expected to take jobs below our education, our abilities, and more importantly, our desires. A far stretch from our parents' generation of taking "any job that pays the bills" and heavily-laden with a sense of entitlement, we long for mental stimulation worthy of that required in a university classroom, we want for that instant gratification of the hard work we invested at school, and we seek a job that makes us feel happy, useful, fulfilled. Nothing quite knocks you down to reality like not only applying for but fighting and praying to get a job that pays minimum wage with a Master's Degree nestled in your filing cabinet back home.

Does this make us spoiled? A bit, of course. Sometimes, you just have to do what you have to do, the bills need to be paid, the kids need to be fed, whatever your obligations may be. Sometimes you have to suck it up and play whatever crappy hand you're dealt. But are we necessarily to blame for our expectations? For a generation that was pounded with nothing but mind-numbing aphorisms attesting to the benefits of higher education and for children constantly prodded to follow their hearts and dreams, what did our predecessors think we would become when we were suddenly told "your degree is worthless", and "sorry, you dreamed too big". Spoiled, they call us. Though we were raised to want for more, a spoiled child sits back and expects the world to be handed to them, whereas a college student knows well enough their degree comes with blood, sweat, and many tears, so much that less than half the people who enter college finish. After four years of poring over books and ripping your hair out over exams, is it unrealistic to want for the luxury of a comfortable pleasant job?

What now seems like wasted time and wasted efforts throws one's ego down the pipes. It's a difficult blow, especially when the guy at Starbucks with little more than a GED is pulling in $15 an hour, and you were pulling in $11, and only because you went to college (otherwise it was $9). What we're now faced with is a lowly reality that can quickly pull you down, and you only fall farther because you were set up so high to begin with. After four hard years you thought you'd found the golden ticket, only to realize it was just a piece of stained foil. And it hurts. And it's terrifying.

However, perhaps the benefit that lies here in this recession, if we survive it, is that we will come out stronger on the other end. We will know what it is like to toil and struggle in the work force, to beat ourselves senseless with double shifts and multiple jobs. We will quickly learn the importance of a strong work ethic so to not lose that precious job, and we will find relentless determination in our long bouts of pavement pounding. We will learn patience, and we will learn personal strength. Granted, we have not yet reached the devastation of the epic Great Depression, but for a generation that had so much handed to it, this recession is still a tragic blow to the routine of the easy lives we once knew. We may find ourselves struggling with depression, with senses of failure, with letdowns and delayed dreams. But all we can hope for is that someday our investments will pay off sometime in the future, that the little slip of university paper will gain some value, and that we may not have sunk so low that we cannot be revived. Until then, it may be back to retail, fast food, babysitting, name tags and pimple faced supervisors, but manage a smile with the knowledge that you're working.

1 comment:

Lyn said...

Amen Jae to every single word. Amen. With my Master's graduation looming next May, I've got a little under a year to hope the economic tide changes direction. We were always told a college education would be our key that unlocks a world of opportunity. That world has been foreclosed on, bought back by the bank and the key doesn't fit the lock anymore. Here's hoping those opportunities eventually return and all of our hard work pays off. Oh and I now have a job with a nametag to boot :)