James never expected his English degree from Virginia Commonwealth University to land him in line for food stamps at the Virginia Department of Social Services two years after graduation.
James, who asked that his real name not be used, taught English in Korea for six months after graduating, but he came home to the worst recession since the Great Depression. The only work he could find was a tutoring job at a homeless shelter for a few hours each week. He doesn't make enough to afford groceries.
"The worst thing about it is that people assume that you're abusing the system because you're young," James says. "There are a lot of feelings of worthlessness for not having a job." A fire at his apartment building in early December didn't help, either. He's now living with friends until he can move back into his own place.
Joblessness among Americans in their early 20s is at its highest level in almost 27 years. In November, while the nation's overall jobless numbers dipped slightly, the unemployment rate for 20- to 24-year-olds continued to edge higher, hitting 16 percent, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. The last time unemployment was at or above that level for workers in their early 20s was February 1983, when the number hit 16.2 percent. By comparison, the overall unemployment rate in November 2009 was 10 percent.
Being mostly untested in the workplace makes it significantly harder for college graduates to get a job now than in better economic times, says Donald Lillywhite, director of labor-market information for the Virginia Employment Commission. "College grads don't have experience in their chosen fields," he says. "Employers will typically pick a more experienced person."
"You graduate, you get a job — that's the idea,'' James says. "But now it's like nobody's willing to give young people a chance."
James is far from alone. The Virginia Department of Social Services has been receiving a lot more traffic in the past year, according to Tom Steinhauser, director of benefit programs at the Virginia Department of Social Services. And a surprising number of applicants are young college graduates.
"Young folks just getting out of school may not have the resources," Steinhauser says. "If they're young, they may be hit hard; it could be that they really need the food stamps."
Out of desperation, a lot of young people are abandoning near-term hopes of using their college degrees and instead are settling for service jobs.
Six months ago, Abigail Eisley was swelling with expectations as she threw her cap in the air during her college graduation ceremony at James Madison University. She wanted to work in the public sector — possibly at a nonprofit, or with the Justice Department: "I was excited about getting a job and paying my bills, trying to make it on my own."
Now, she waits tables at two restaurants — Strawberry Street Café and Can Can Brasserie — and she babysits. Despite her three jobs, she can barely afford rent at the Fan duplex she shares with two other young women. As colder weather arrived, Eisley and her roommates agreed not to turn on the heat until mid-December, to save money on the gas bill until they all had jobs.
She says she counts herself lucky, however. A lot of her friends are still unemployed. "I'm very thankful that I found jobs, even if it's not in an industry I'm interested in pursuing a career with," says Eisley, whose bachelor's degree from JMU is in justice studies, with a concentration in global justice and policy.
Customer service is nothing new to Eisley. She grew up working at her parents' art gallery in Washington, D.C., and they paid her $7 an hour to greet visitors. She never expected to be doing relatively the same thing one college degree later.
"My dad always said [college] would open more doors," Eisley says. "I was feeling pretty defeated for a while, that I couldn't even get a waitress position with a four-year degree."
Eisley started applying for jobs online in May but didn't land anything solid until late October, when she was hired at Strawberry Street Café. To pay her November rent, she borrowed money that was already borrowed — Eisley's sister helped out with cash from her graduate-school loan.
According to William F. Mezger, chief economist at the Virginia Employment Commission, Eisley probably couldn't have received benefits during the five-month window that she was unemployed because she didn't have a steady work history.
"I think in most cases, people who don't have a work history would know that they don't qualify," Mezger said.
Jonathan Lesko fits that description. As an economics major at the University of Virginia, Lesko remembers chatting in class at the beginning of his last semester about how the economy was going "down and out." But this Echols Scholar and honor student, who graduated in 2009 with a 3.77 GPA, never expected to be making minimum wage at Saxby's Coffee six months later.
"I chose economics on the basis that it was practical, and I viewed it as a degree that would open doors," says Lesko, who lives in an apartment in Richmond's South Side. "I want to do something other than work at a coffee shop. With all the things that I've learned, I'm better suited for other things."
As a straight-A student in high school taking mostly Advanced-Placement classes, it was no surprise when Lesko was accepted into the school that U.S. News & World Report ranked in 2009 as No. 2 among the nation's public universities.
In college, Lesko double-majored in Latin American studies and economics. He also participated in many extracurricular activities, including leading a Portuguese conversation group in his dorm.
He expected his hard work to pay off.
"Of course, the huge kind of wrecking ball of the situation is this idea that, yes, my whole life, since I was a little tyke, I was told, ‘Do well in school, go to college, get a good job.' And that's the narrative."
But he found that the standard plotline had changed. While he's eking by with his coffee-shop job, he still has health insurance through his parents.
"I feel like, once upon a time, a high-school diploma got you so much," Lesko says. "Now, an undergraduate diploma isn't good enough."
On a late November night, Eisley clocks out of Strawberry Street Café at 8:30 p.m. and wraps herself in a coat and scarf before walking out into the chilly fall night. When she gets home, she'll finish writing a cover letter for an internship application. Then maybe she'll check to see if there are any recent postings for nonprofit jobs on a local Web site before calling it a night.
"You can't give up," she says. "If I had given up, then I'd just be racking up credit-card debt. That wouldn't be productive."