I graduated from Rutgers University in 2011. I'd spent college living at home, delivering pizzas, and working as a garbage man to save money. I took $100 community college courses that transferred to $1,000 credits at Rutgers, and hacked the add-drop system to take more core classes than I should have been allowed, to avoid loans and to get the hell out of college, and into the real world, as quickly as possible.
When I did, my friends and I all assumed we were destined for greatness. The reality was that the national unemployment rate was 9 percent, and almost 13 percent for recent college grads. My journalism degree seemed worthless, and I got by selling sperm three times a week at $100 a pop.
My friends, who I thought were going to change the world, were shucking shingles off roofs or, if they were lucky, working at boring office jobs like their parents. They viewed those jobs as temporary—a way to pay off some of their loans or save up to travel later on—but years later they got comfortable with, or became addicted to, the stability of a steady paycheck and were never able to break away.
It's a bleak picture of the "real world," but for recent graduates, the post-college world seems significantly more hopeful. In many ways, you little shits don't know how good you have it: The national unemployment rate is under 5 percent—the lowest it's been since 2007—and less than 2.5 percent for college grads. There's opportunity to change jobs, even careers, more frequently than anyone before you. Gas is cheap, travel is within reach for just about anyone, and technology is making it easier than ever to work remotely.
I'd love to tell you this is the age of the free spirit, that you're holding all of the cards in your hand along with your diploma. After all, you're not graduating in the middle of a recession like we were—what's to stop you from following your dreams? But for every one of you who joins the Peace Corps or decides to travel the country in a Winnebago after graduation, there will be a thousand more of you who will wind up working 50-hour workweeks at soul-sucking desk jobs, just like my graduating class, and just like your parents.
"The 'recent grad' glow was super brief. Since then, I've just felt like a shitty version of an old dude."
Today's post-college path may seem freer than when I graduated, according to Joe Scott, a career specialist at Rutgers University who's worked with thousands of students over the past 26 years. The economy has bounced back and young people are reinventing what it means to have a job. But more and more students are beholden to student loans, which can be just as restricting as the recession was for my graduating class.
"Unfortunately, students might be less inclined to pursue their dreams because of their financial situation," he told me. The average person in 2016 will graduate with more than $37,000 in debt, according to the Wall Street Journal—a full 6 percent higher than the year before.
"A perfect example is a student that is not willing to relocate because they are concerned about the cost of living on their own," Scott said. "They might be more willing to take a job that will allow them to live [at home] with their family to save money rather than relocating for a better career opportunity. I have also seen students make career decisions based on money instead of pursuing a career they are really interested in."
Because crushing student loan debt is making things just as bleak for recent grads as it was for grads in my day, those of you who just got your diplomas can learn a lot from the trials and tribulations of young people from my era. Take my friend Sean, who during senior year in college got an internship with an engineering firm. It was boring, but it paid great for a summer job. We talked about traveling the world after college, but when we graduated in that miserable economy, the firm offered him a full-time job and he took it—temporarily, for the nice paycheck.
The cubicle life was a vicious cycle. So he broke the boredom with purchases: a new car, soccer jerseys, and expensive weekend trips. The spending, combined with his loans, chipped away at that nice paycheck, and he became more beholden to the job. Six years later, he still works there.
And then there's my cousin John, who graduated from Carnegie Mellon in 2012. When he got his first job as a revenue analyst, right out of college, the nearly six-figure salary seemed unimaginable to me. He got a car and a nice apartment in New York City. He still travels, but the trips have to fit into his work schedule, and he hasn't saved enough to break away from the job.
"The 'recent grad' glow was super brief," he told me. "I felt proud of working and content with making a paycheck, but [I was] not putting a ton of money away or advancing career wise for awhile, and that quickly faded. Since then, I've just felt like a shitty version of an old dude."
I've watched many of my own graduating class lose touch of the things they were so excited to do when we were fresh out of college. Every year, I ask my friends about their plans to travel, work for a nonprofit, teach English abroad, or whatever their dreams were. In return, they tell me about student loans, how they'll be paying them until they're 60; their marginal raises, which they spend on $14 cocktails or tickets to Coachella, to make their unfulfilling lives more tolerable. They take vacations during their allotted two weeks off, rather than two-year travel experiences they'd hoped for.
And I get it: For most people, it's just not practical to ignore your student loans or the realities of a weak job market. Recession graduates are the most financially risk-averse generation since the generation that came of age during the Great Depression, according to a study conducted by UBS Wealth Management, and that makes sense. What doesn't make sense is giving up on what we wanted to do with our lives to have financial security.
After six years at the engineering firm, Sean called me last month to tell me he's moving to Thailand with his girlfriend, where they're going to teach English. And after working unfulfilling newspaper jobs for years to pay the bills, I quit exactly one year ago to pursue freelance writing full-time.
That's the only part that you debt-ridden graduates can really control—keeping your dreams in sight. Take the desk job because, for now, you have to. But don't settle in. Pay your loans. Live modestly. When you get raises, don't move into a bigger apartment. As your income increases, don't increase your quality of life. Never drink the $14 cocktails.
Maybe the "real world," which you're now standing at the edge of, is always full of fear and challenges that threaten the thing you really want to do with your life—whether it's a weak job market or thousands of dollars in student loans or just the realization that you have to fight for what you want in this "real world." But we're all fucked unless we can push through that. I'm rooting for you, class of 2016.
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