Lost & FoundA delayed generation moves forward one sidestep at a time.
“Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans.”
— Allen Saunders (widely attributed to John Lennon)
TO BEGIN WITH…
Let’s start with the numbers, shall we? Everyone knows that the current economic climate is terrible, but nothing throws an ugly situation into relief like the harsh light of statistics. Youth unemployment rates are at record highs. According to a recent article by The Atlantic, almost 14 percent of college graduates who matriculated during 2006-2010 are unable to find full-time employment, and only 55.3 percent of those aged 16-29 are working, which is the lowest percentage since World War II. Globally, the rates of unemployed youth are also at record highs, as reported by CNN. In Spain, it’s at 44 percent, and in Italy and France, it’s in the 20 percent range.
On the surface, it’s clearly a bad time to be looking for your first job, and the numbers seem to bear out the fact that any delay in your professional career track will have lasting and measurable repercussions. A separate report in The Atlantic quotes Yale economist Lisa Kahn as saying, “It’s as if the lucky graduates had been given a gift of about $100,000, adjusted for inflation, immediately upon graduation—or, alternatively, as if the unlucky ones had been saddled with a debt of the same size.” The Huffington Post cites a new report estimating the average student-debt load for graduates of the class of 2010 was over $25,000, which makes the loss of potential future earning all the more keen. When faced with that six-figure number, it’s hard to remember that it’s only the possibility of money lost. It’s not tangible, and it never existed.
And that’s just the thing. When you look at the numbers and the dire prognostications of future calamity, it’s easy to call the landscape bleak and leave it at that. But that is not what this so-called “Lost Generation” is doing. They are leaving the moaning to us, the generations that put them in this predicament, and getting down to the business of making their way. Most of the people I talked to for this story have found some way to make do, to find joy in what they have and hope in what they may accomplish. Life for them is an opportunity waiting to happen, and though many have dealt with uncertainty and depression, the moniker “Lost Generation” couldn’t be more inappropriate. These young men and women aren’t lost; they’re just defining their own direction, and in the end I think we’ll find that they are stronger for it, even without that hundred grand.
Major: Mechanical Engineering
Like many people who go to college, Latoya Buggs had a pretty good plan set for herself. She would get a degree in mechanical engineering, get a job with a big company in the South’s burgeoning automotive industry and work her way up the ladder. That all changed with a small addition to her life, an addition that gurgles and coos contentedly on her lap while we chat.
That’s right, shortly after graduating from UAB, Buggs discovered that she was pregnant, and though she was already having trouble with her job search, the happy news ended it completely. “A lot of mechanical engineering jobs are very physical, and being a pregnant woman was not safe,” she insists. “Being outside in the heat, being around welding. Also, it’s hard to go find a 40 to 50 hour a week job when you’re sick every day. Mentally I wasn’t motivated, but I was looking. When you get a degree, you feel like, ‘I have to do this.’”
Now that she is contemplating a return to full-time work, she has to face the reality of the new environment. “The American dream of, ‘If you get a college degree, you’ll get a job,’ it’s not true anymore. You feel cheated,” Buggs says.
Yet despite feeling cheated, she doesn’t try to place the blame on the usual culprits. “I think each person has to be accountable for their own actions,” she says. “I do think there are a lot of factors that have affected the economy, and I can’t just blame the President or blame Wall Street. I think that times have changed, it’s getting tougher no matter what you do.”
Now, as she looks for work, she finds everything colored by her new son, Ethan, and thoughts of how she can make the world a better place for him. “I know now that I need to prepare him and teach him that there are no guarantees in life. If you want to go to college, that’s fine, but I would probably encourage him more to start his own business, do his own thing, use his brain for himself to help himself be more self-sufficient.”
Graduated: Troy University
Major: Broadcast Journalism
When it comes to a bad job climate, one of the strongest weapons in a young person’s arsenal is hustle, and Tiffany Davers has some to spare. She originally came to Birmingham for an unpaid internship with ISP Sports and later a low-paid job with UAB Athletics, all while working at a retail store in the evening to make ends meet and driving the hour-long commute from her home in Chilton County twice a day. The UAB Athletics job was rewarding initially, but they had her working full-time hours on a part-time wage, and eventually it was time to move on.
“I wanted to get into TV, that’s still very much what I want to do, and I felt that there was no more for me to learn, there was no more experience for me to gain,” Davers says. “I had talked to a couple of TV stations, and had the opportunity to shadow with ABC, but being at UAB I didn’t have the time to devote to it.”
The ABC gig is also unpaid, but according to Davers, it is an essential part of the path she is taking. “It’s an experience,” she says. “When you try to get a job in TV, it doesn’t matter how much experience you have with producing, directing, film editing, anything like that, if you don’t have newsroom experience it’s really not going to do you any good.”
Which explains why Tiffany Davers is willing to take so many jobs for low pay or for free. She recognizes that if the economy was better she might have achieved her goal sooner, but doesn’t identify with the “lost” tag.
“Instead of being able to be complete four or five years of school and immediately find a job, you just have to take smaller steps,” she says. “It’s not just one big leap. So, we’re not really lost, it’s just there’s a different path to what you want to do.”
Graduated: University of Georgia
Major: Master of Fine Arts
When Sarah Heath, sculptor and metal artist, first went back to school, it was really for the experience of school itself, not to further any ambition. “The promise of grad school in the arts is that it’s three years to just make art and focus on your career as an artist,” she reveals. “I wanted that. I wanted to not have to work and just make art for three years.”
That changed when Heath discovered, while fulfilling her graduation requirement, that she loved teaching, loved “actually hearing synaptic gaps being hopped over.” Unfortunately, getting a teaching job is one of the most ornate, complicated and often unfulfilling endeavors a job-seeker can undertake. It’s a yearly cycle that centers around one massive convention. “It’s like speed dating for college universities,” she says. “It’s a meat market. You have 30 different interviews for professor jobs that pay upwards of 55,000 dollars a year happening in the same room at the same time. Talk about distracting!”
When her job search failed to pan out, it was very deflating. “All of a sudden the rug’s pulled out from under you,” Heath says. “You’re out of grad school, so you don’t have your free studio that the university gave you, you don’t have student loans that you were basically living off of, you don’t have the stipends from the university. Nobody promised that you were going to get a job, but everything was gearing toward that, so coming out of that and not getting it, I felt a little broken at first, and I kind of forgot who I was.”
Heath, who is working as a bartender at Bottletree while she prepares for next year’s job cycle, feels good about her situation. “All I have is gratitude now,” she says. “I didn’t get the job I thought I would, the job I was dreaming about getting, but I work at the coolest music venue in America. I love or really like all the people around me. They are like a family. You have in your mind, ‘This is what my life is going to be.’ I hadn’t even allotted for time to fall in love and get a house with a dude and do all these other really great adventures that I hadn’t really had time to think about. And now, it’s like a whole different and awesome situation, just not the awesome situation I thought I was going to be in.”
These days, many post-grads find themselves having to work jobs they never wanted, not the jobs they dreamed of. Jamaal Gamble is one such job-seeker, but unlike many, he planned on having a job he wasn’t attached to. “I was going to graduate, go back to Huntsville, since I already knew a few people, get a job and save up money,” he says. “Since I didn’t have to pay rent I’d be able to start paying on the loans I have from school and then build up from there.”
Currently, Gamble works at the Toyota plant pulling auto parts. “The hardest part is staying awake, to be honest with you,” he admits. “My first job they had me doing was moving attachment parts for the engines that they build from one part of the assembly line to another, and I did that for 10 hours. I was literally falling asleep standing up. They were laughing about it. It’s real tedious, man.”
Still, it’s better than being miserable, which he’d had his fair share of. “I was getting to that point where I felt I couldn’t do anything,” Gamble says. “It’s not an easy thing to get over it, but you have to just keep moving, because I swear to God if you dwell on that shit every second of every day you’ll go crazy.”
To help himself out of the rut, Gamble has chosen to dwell on something more fulfilling. In addition to being a photographer, he is also a talented B-Boy (break-dancer) and often performs locally with the LOBOTOMIX crew. He’s managed to find a niche for himself that fulfills him creatively, even if it doesn’t pay, and he thinks the rest of his generation is doing the same. “I think we’re just trying to find our place,” he says. “There was this system that was built up to work a certain way, for generations, and now all of that is going to hell because everything didn’t pan out right. It’s coming to a point where things are about to change, and we’re going to have to step up and take the reins. I’m just doing everything I can to make a better life for myself. I’m not trying to get too stressed out about it. I mean, I got what it takes. That’s pretty much it.”
Graduated: University of Alabama
Major: Religious Studies
Shortly before Justin Nelson graduated with a degree in religious studies, he became suddenly disillusioned with the entire academic process and decided to make a sharp left turn, becoming involved in software and information technology. He got a job working for the founder of software company Daxko at a start-up called Yacht Record, and later for Daxko itself, and just as he was interviewing for a new job with Earthlink, he was laid off from the company. At the time, he didn’t realize it was the beginning of a sea change.
“I was already interviewing with Earthlink, so I thought that was great,” Nelson recalls. He got the job at Earthlink, but when the request went through HR, it was denied due to pending cutbacks.
“That was really deflating,” Nelson says. “Then I interviewed with a start-up, and they said I had the job, and I even went to a day of training. In the end, they got the account but they still didn’t have the money to sustain another salesperson.”
Left with nothing, he turned to his father’s business, Nelson Trucking, for relief. It’s not what he wanted, and he works an exhausting 80 to 100 hours a week, but he’s in a leadership position and is essentially his own boss. However, in the corporate business environment, Nelson says his generation is truly delayed. “We’re not lost, we’re screwed,” he says. “The longer you get from having that magical five years of experience, the less marketable you are. Struggle is good, but insurmountable odds are completely different. If you’re in the business climate and you get a late start, they let you know it in your reviews and how you’re treated. Corporate America is a nightmare. It’s really all about going public, the bottom line and the spreadsheet.”
Nelson also doesn’t see much hope from the political arena. “With Congress and the current two-party system we have that can’t agree with anyone, I don’t have any hope right now,” he says. “They’re all bought and paid for by these God-awful corporations we’re talking about. They run the country. I’d like to occupy the hell out of ‘em.”
While Nelson hasn’t actually participated in an Occupy protest, he identifies with the movement, but thinks their goals are ultimately doomed. “I think the individual people on the micro scale, they’re going to find ways to do things, but on the macro scale nothing ever changes,” he says. “Individually, we’ll be unique and creative and beautiful, but societally, culturally, we have Alzheimer’s. Everyone has it, it’s horrible, and no one cares.”
When Jason Roche first went to college, he didn’t think he was starting a process that would take almost a decade to complete and see him attending four different universities. At first, the delay was of his own making. “I wouldn’t go, I would stay home,” he says. “I worked at Full Moon Barbeque and I smoked a lot of weed. I was 19, I had no idea of the consequences I was getting myself into. Basically, I was a moron.”
Roche kept trying, transferring from his first school, Jefferson State, to Holy Cross in Indiana and then to the University of Alabama, only to drop out shortly after arriving in Tuscaloosa. At this point, he thought perhaps college just wasn’t for him and decided it would be cool to cut meat. That’s right, you read that correctly. “What drew me to it was kind of silly, but it’s Daniel Day Lewis’s character in Gangs of New York, Bill the Butcher,” he admits. “He was amazing to me, and I thought it would be cool to be a butcher.”
At first, being out of college was a huge relief. “I remember that day I decided I quit college. I remember walking out of work and knowing it was the first day of school for everyone else, and I just had to go home,” Roche says. I was done, my day was done, and it was amazing, and I knew that I would never go back. Then, a year or so later, I’m looking around at my co-workers, and thinking, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’”
So back to Jeff State he went, and to his surprise, discovered that he loved early American literature. “That’s what drew me to become an English major,” Roche says. “It was the one thing that could really keep my attention. Emerson lit a fire under my ass.”
It didn’t last. “Once I finally got into UAB and realized how wildly unprepared I was for academic writing, I found I hated it. It was just so sterile to me. I thought, ‘Why am I here? I’m getting an English degree, I may as well not have a degree. What is the point?’”
Finally, after eight years, he was done. “I graduated, and then I didn’t believe it,” he says. “I got the degree in the mail and I cried. My first inclination was to burn it, and then I thought, ‘No, maybe I’ll frame it, maybe in some neon light.’ I want to keep it on me, so that when people see me at the meat department I can be like, ‘Look, I got a degree, I’m just here serving you steak.’ I’m so conflicted now, because I feel really good. I feel good about myself. I can see the work that I did, and that feels nice, but at the same time, I can’t keep it up. There’s an artistry in making the meat look good and I take pride in that, but my hands hurt, and I’m standing for eight hours a day.”
Thankfully, Jason has another profession where he stands up—as a comedian. He performs his comedy locally at open mics and comedy shows, and talking to him, you get the feeling that it’s his sense of humor that has guided him and continues to guide him through a life that has been fraught with disappointment and disillusionment, and that the ability to laugh, at one’s self and the world at large, is a necessary talent for anyone trying to struggle in today’s economy.
and in the end…
Every generation faces a moment where they realize that the reins are getting handed over to them, a moment where they step forward and define who they will be, what they will stand for and how they will shape the world they live in. it has happened in hard economic times before, and it will most assuredly happen again. what matters is how you react, how you learn to live and grow in response to those hard times. I think Sarah Heath said it best:
“You can get shaken up by something, you can get all fractured, but you’re not broken, you’re just a little banged up by the way things turned out. Give yourself a couple days and wallow in it, and then get out of it, because there’s no use to it. You have to be able to be grateful for the things you have and the things that are around you, and if you can’t recognize that, than you could get all of those things you wanted that were your dreams, and it wouldn’t matter. If you can be happy here, you can be happy anywhere.”
Originally printed in B-Metro on December 1, 2011.