How Not to Become Part of the “Lost Generation” of Jobless Young Americans

Petrified. Horrified. Hopeless. None of those are words young, eager workers recently graduated from some of the top universities in America should be using. But, the economic reality has created these negative buzzwords that fly from the lips of new grad to new grad, and they’re perpetuated because it’s a reflection of reality for so many Gen Yers right now.

In the U.S., the unemployment rate for 16- to 24-year-olds has climbed to more than 18%, from 13% a year ago.

The most popular story in Business Week right now examines the topic of the growing “Lost Generation” of young people being created by the extended global recession, and the prognosis doesn’t look good – especially because career support systems were already failing Gen Yers before Wall Street tumbled.

In this video, Business Week’s Peter Coy and Michael Mandel discuss the increasingly tough situation Gen Yers are facing, calling it a “big issue:”

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more about “The Lost Generation“, posted with vodpod


According to the article, “scarring” of young workers means missing out on early experiences, permanently suffering from depressed lifetime earning potential and the creation of a talent vacuum when recovery happens and Baby Boomers retire.

Plus, a Yale study found that for each percentage-point rise in the unemployment rate, those who graduated during the recession earned 6% to 7% less in their first year of employment than their more fortunate counterparts. That’s long-term damage.

Another huge concern is the perception issue. Once hired, young people who suffered an extended period of joblessness may be looked down upon by more fortunate peers or managers – even if you’re not “wasting” your time and are using the downturn to get more education, volunteer or take on part-time work to keep moving as much as you can.


Letting both motivation and skills waste away is dangerous, if you’re out of work right now. Even given Gen Y’s traditionally sunny outlook, It’s immensely hard to combat the bitterness that comes with facing the harsh reality of months of unemployment.

Grads just aren’t finding what they expected or were prepared for in school.

“It’s rough,” says one friend of mine, a recent grad, stellar student and campus leader. “Especially when you’re used to being a high achiever – you did the right things, got the right internships, have tons of real-life experience – I’m still young, and I can’t help that.”

Stressful? Yeah, find me a Gen Yer who isn’t stressed right now.

Fighting Back: Government, Employers and Universities

So how can you, a young, out of work Gen Yer avoid being part of this new “Lost Generation?”

The government can help by encouraging paid training, providing hiring incentives for businesses and creating school-to-work program. Partnerships with university-level career services would be smart.

Some experts have proposed going back and lowering the rapidly inflated minimum wage, saying it is a hindrance to hiring young talent. I disagree with that – if you’re young, you still have the same bills to pay as everyone else. I call it the Hollywood Phenomena – lower the minimum wage and instead of future divas waiting on you at Applebee’s, it will be a savvy programmer moonlighting as a bartender and a laid-off engineer constructing sweater piles at American Eagle.

I’m afraid for employers who aren’t dealing positively with hard times. I know so many early-to-mid career professionals who are vastly unhappy with the work that is being dumped on them after layoffs but no reduction in daily work load. Everyone is working the job of one or even two other people.

Businesses are setting themselves up for an exodus if they don’t continue to hire, in hard times – once recovery hits, they’ll suffer. Institutional knowledge, if not passed along, gets lost as people retire. Companies with a reputation for a gray work force won’t attract bright, innovative talent.

Colleges aren’t going far enough in helping grads prepare for reality. Where are the required resume classes, the professors who require weekly reports from students on professional education events, networking and meetings?

Fighting Back: DIY

If you’re one of those thousands of young people dying for work, any work, here are a few things you can do to prevent getting lost.

  1. Be an entrepreneur: If you’ve got an idea, or know someone who does, it’s time to take a risk – if you’ve got no other options, what do you have to lose? It’s an awesome time to innovate. Times like this are trying for big business, but those who peter out and die open up opportunity for young talent. Be conscious about growing your network of smart people now, so when opportunity knocks, you can jump on it.
  2. Don’t burn bridges. If you’ve recently been laid off, or lost out on a job because a friend got it, don’t get bitter. It’s tough to bite your tongue sometimes, but keep good relationships with people you used to work for or who know your skills and abilities. If they can throw you some business, recommendations, contacts or good advice – you need everything you can get.
  3. Keep working. Do anything you can. Consulting, contracted work, temp jobs. You have to keep yourself moving. An unpaid internship is still an internship. If you have to work a retail job and bartend to actually pay the bills, do it. Parents or other advisers might not understand — their worldview is not ours and you have to follow your gut. Removing yourself entirely and not continuing to grow is the worst thing you can do.
  4. Don’t use school as a crutch. If you’re petrified of facing real life (hey, it’s scary — I don’t blame you!), or tried it and gotten burned, don’t give up. Though more education used to always be a good thing, is it worth the cost of removing yourself from the market for an even longer period of time? If you need more education, stay in the workforce while you get it.
  5. Make smart financial choices. This is not the time to bankroll a honeymoon on your credit card, take a dream trip to Europe or otherwise acquire more debt. It’s time to get serious about your own financial plan, pay down any debt you do have and make a five year plan. Many of us didn’t have good spending role models, so go out and get smart, then help make Gen Y the first truly financially savvy generation.
  6. Be outstanding. It’s not time to focus on getting an A. If you will get a degree, the grade you pass with absolutely doesn’t matter (and believe me — this is coming from a 4.0 student — it doesn’t do jack for ya). What does matter is practical, measurable, portfolio-worthy experience, paired with an extreme commitment to soaking up every aspect of your future career. Read, try new technology, build an online presence and personal brand, challenge yourself, create fictional clients, do non-profit work and force yourself to turn a boring just-for-a-grade project into something for your book. It’s crucial because only stars are getting jobs right now.

You can be that star — just don’t lose yourself in the economic morass. It’s time for our generation to step up by advocating and taking responsibility for ourselves and our careers, by not getting lost in the rubble of destruction laying in our path. You can borrow my pick axe.*

*Wow. This piece seemed so bleak, I had to leave you with some levity, 80’s child-style.

Snow Whites dwarves have pick axes, too.

Snow White's dwarves have pick axes, too.

If the Goonies can find their way, so can you! 🙂


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3 responses to “How Not to Become Part of the “Lost Generation” of Jobless Young Americans”

  1. Paul Wynn says :

    This is really great! I love the prevent getting lost list. As simple as it may seem people do lose control and that is enough to start a domino effect in a life that may or may not be repairable

  2. Short Seller says :

    Glad I never went to college and worked in Wallstreet as a shortseller

  3. JD says :

    A great pick-me-up to get my day started! I’m very tired of hearing boomers complaining about how we’re spoiled and entitled – who are they pointing fingers at?! Not to mention their own attitudes of entitlement (pensions, benefits etc.)

    I’m a recent newgrad and I’ve opted for being an entrepreneur. I think even if I fail miserably, I will have done more to improve my career prospects than all my previous work experience combined. We have (literally) very little to lose.

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