Essay: One millennial's story of the recession
The lack of career-oriented opportunities now will likely follow millennials forward, even in an improving economy.
Special to The Seattle Times
First, a small confession: I've always been one of those readers who skips to the end of a book to prepare myself in case comedy turns tragic.
Now, as a 25-year-old in the midst of what is euphemistically called an "economic recovery," I'm at the point in my life where, if it were a book, I'd jump ahead and make sure the young-adult characters don't die of an asphyxiating job market.
So far, I've weathered the storm with the semblance of a normal trajectory: I grew up in Lake Forest Park, graduated from Shorecrest High School in 2005, enrolled directly at Whitman College in Eastern Washington and am now employed as a news producer at The Seattle Times, where I invisibly move around headlines on our homepage and more visibly tweet and post to our social-media accounts.
I am fortunate to have gotten where I am today. My college tuition was paid for by my parents and scholarships. My first job out of college was in Japan, where I was paid in a currency that benefited from the weakened dollar.
Not until I returned stateside did I see the extent to which millennials — the generation that came of age with Facebook and YouTube — have been derailed by the recession.
As the supply of jobs has diminished, the demand for better-qualified, better-educated, better-trained hires has forced millennials to compete with others twice our age and experience.
The lack of career-oriented opportunities now will likely follow millennials forward, casting a shadow over future prospects. We're the future of America's workforce, and we're punching below our weight right now.
Jason Costales, a former Shorecrest classmate, spent two years unsuccessfully applying for jobs after graduating from the University of Washington with an international studies degree.
"I focused on the academic part of college, and never got the work experience," he said. "That's where I messed up."
Now 25, Jason is back in school full time for his master's in ministry and has recently wrapped up an internship with World Concern, a Seattle-based Christian humanitarian group.
But he acknowledges that, "being in my mid-20s and taking an unpaid internship, you have that question of, 'Man, what am I doing with my life?' "
For others, finding even an unpaid internship or volunteer position that's fulfilling isn't easy these days.
My boyfriend, recently looking for an internship with an environmental-consulting firm in Seattle, met with alumni several years older for advice about how to get experience, even uncompensated, at a company like theirs.
They were thrilled to meet him, clapped him on the back, told him he was doing everything right, and yet never addressed the elephant in the recession: Like so many millennials, he was asking for a chance to prove himself, and didn't get it.
I worry about this generation's poverty of experience more than today's lower wages. My worst nightmare is that we are the generation no employer will want to handle: too old for entry-level positions, but holding résumés too light and holey for managerial roles.
Even those who, on paper, look to have avoided the worst (myself included) are apprehensive about the years ahead.
I'm blessed with a newspaper job that educates me while I work; few of my friends know what's happening in Yemen or with the Seahawks' quarterbacks. But even with a full-time position, homeownership seems a mirage in the desert to me.
In a few years, we can only hope for a rosier economy, at which point we'll likely be competing with the next wave of bright-eyed graduates who will enter the job market without a recession blemish on their résumés. I suspect that my recession-free counterpart will see higher pay and faster promotions than I will.
But our generation has two factors in its favor: an incredible level of adaptability and an equally defying sense of possibility. Surveys show that the majority of young adults aren't daunted by today's grim prospects, despite the odds.
Katharine Knight, another former Shorecrest classmate, is one such optimist. Despite struggling to find work in the U.S. Forest Service and her current underemployment, Katharine sees our generation as flexible and resilient.
When I pressed her about that, the 24-year-old responded as only a millennial can:
"We're a generation that has seen so much change so fast. We saw big old clunky Macintosh computers in our first-grade classroom turn into iPhones," she said.
"That kind of growth breeds optimism. We're not going to think the economy will be a big old clunky Macintosh for the rest of our lives."
I don't know what the next chapter will be in the lives of the millennials, but I have little doubt I'll be proud to read about it, and likely on a smart(er)phone.
Comedy, after all, is just tragedy plus time.
Katrina Barlow is an associate producer at The Seattle Times. Previously, she was the Shorecrest Homecoming Queen, a title that has not helped her whatsoever in getting jobs.