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Originally published May 19, 2012 at 8:01 PM | Page modified May 21, 2012 at 7:32 AM

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Recession Generation hit hard in struggle to adulthood

As a group, young adults who entered the job market when the economy collapsed have remained resilient despite a unique set of challenges: often beset by student debt and unable to launch careers in their chosen fields, many juggle low-paying jobs that have delayed their dreams of homeownership, marriage and other rites of adulthood.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Graphic: Young adults and the recession

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Graphic: Recession Generation confronts unemployment, debt

Click to see an enlarged version of the graphic.

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Katie Spangler had it all planned out.

She did as many high-school activities as possible, from drama to golf, to make herself appealing to college admissions officers. She excelled at Western Washington University, graduating with a double major in communications and human-resource management. And then she confidently launched herself into the real world.

But there was one thing Spangler couldn't expect: the worst recession in decades.

It struck in 2008, as she was finishing up at Western. It decimated the job market, leading her to settle for jobs as a bartender and legal assistant. And now, two months after she finally landed a position she's passionate about, it is threatening to take that away.

"Everything can change, no matter what you put into it," Spangler said of the budget cuts at the Washington State Bar Association, where the 24-year-old now works in consumer affairs. "Nothing is certain these days."

Spangler is part of a group of Americans that has been hit especially hard by the downturn: those who entered the workforce in the middle of it, when companies large and small were paring their staffs to a minimum — or shutting down altogether.

Between 2005 and 2009 — the years Spangler attended Western — the median net worth of workers 35 and younger plummeted 55 percent, about twice the national average, according to the Pew Research Center.

This generation, called by some the Recession Generation, will likely feel the effects of the downturn for the rest of their lives, some economists believe.

To learn how people of this generation have fared, The Seattle Times surveyed the Hazen High School class of 2005, a midsized, suburban school with a racial and economic mix that's comparable to state averages. College-going members of the class typically entered the job market during the height of the recession.

The online survey was unscientific, but drew responses from nearly half the class. The results largely mirrored findings identified by recent national research.

Taken together, the data point to several major trends:

Members of the Recession Generation are, at sharply higher rates, working in jobs outside their chosen fields, from biology majors waiting tables to master's degree holders running the cash register. More than 40 percent of the surveyed Hazen '05 graduates said they have taken a job just to pay the bills.

In addition, economic struggles have delayed adoption of traditional markers of adulthood — marriage, children and homeownership. Cultural factors were already propelling this shift, but the recession has intensified it.

Meanwhile, rising tuitions and a dearth of jobs available for college students have exacerbated the college debt crisis.

Tough times also have increased uncertainty about the future and fostered a sense in some that finding work is more about luck than skill. Only about 40 percent of employed young adults nationwide are confident they could find a new job — one-third lower than 20 years ago, according to Pew.

Yet studies also show that the recession has not crippled the youthful optimism characteristic of a generation born into a rapidly advancing technological world, where anything seemed possible. Of the Hazen grads who responded to the informal Times survey, only 6 percent said they expect to be less successful than their parents.

These findings reveal only so much, of course. The real story lies in individual accounts.

Here are a few from the Hazen class of '05:

Having to settle

Shawna Crawford did not play with Barbie dolls growing up. She decorated their houses.

An average, outgoing high-schooler who participated in a weekly bowling league, Crawford decided after Hazen to pursue her childhood passion. Three years later, in 2008, she graduated from the International Academy of Design & Technology in Tukwila with a degree in interior design.

Eager to succeed for her grandparents, who raised her, she applied for dozens of design jobs. But the openings she found, Crawford said, typically drew hundreds of hopefuls, many of them experienced workers who had recently been laid off.

Crawford didn't have much of a chance.

Since then, she has done just about everything but interior design.

There was the year and a half as a waitress at Touchdowns Sports Bar & Grill in Renton (before it closed), a receptionist job at a Kent distribution company called Crown Pacific Fine Foods and a part-time stint at Justice, a clothing store in Westfield Southcenter mall.

But the worst was a position at DirectBuy, a home-improvement showroom. Crawford spent her time there mostly helping customers fill out paperwork.

"A couple times I got lucky and had a member that needed help with color or some space choices and I was able to put my two cents in, but that was it," said Crawford, adding that those experiences just made her sad.

DirectBuy shut down in March 2010, leaving Crawford unemployed.

More than a year later, she found her current job, doing clerical work for a Bellevue law firm, where she has worked for seven months. Now 24 and relatively happy, she just moved in with her boyfriend, a waiter at Red Robin and California Pizza Kitchen.

But as for her dream of becoming an interior designer? Crawford said she's become discouraged and feels her skills are probably too rusty for her to find a job now anyway.

"It's been very, very frustrating having to kind of re-look at life," she said. "Very, with a capital V."

Adulthood delayed

Jason Page's high-school experience appears to have been plucked straight out of a television show.

Earnest, preppy and popular, Page — whose parents both taught at Hazen — was the sophomore class president and a football player who dated the captain of the cheerleading team.

Seven years later, he is 25 and about to receive a master's degree from Kirkland's Northwest University. The cheerleader, Stacey, is now his wife, and they have two children.

But they — the four of them — live in one room in the basement of Page's parents' house.

It's not as bad as it sounds, Page said. It's a big room and a comfortable house, a white and gray two-story split level built in the late 1970s. But it's not adulthood.

(Read about the trend of young adults moving back in with their parents in today's Pacific Northwest magazine.)

The couple moved there in September 2009, before they had kids, as Page was earning credits for an online degree from Washington State University. They expected to stay for four months.

Three years later, they haven't felt financially secure enough to leave. After graduating from WSU, Page couldn't find a job related to his humanities major and decided to go back to school to obtain a master's degree in teaching.

Now he's job hunting again, and he's terrified. With most schools cutting, not adding, he's had little success. If he can't find something, he plans to increase his hours at the Pro Sports Club in Bellevue, where he has worked part time since high school.

"It's an hourly job," he said. "Being in a swimming pool dealing with 4-year-olds for seven hours straight — it wears you down, especially after six years. It's a job you do out of high school. It's not a career."

Page looked around the house he grew up in, at his son, Maddox, now almost 2, and his wife, holding their month-old daughter, Peyton.

"I need a career," he said.

Burdened by debt

Stephanie Melrose feels fortunate to have found a job in her chosen field.

The long-haired cross-country runner developed a passion for education while at Hazen. She pursued it afterward, sandwiching a year as a preschool teacher at Seattle's Meadowbrook Community Center between stints at Whitworth University — earning a bachelor's degree in math and a master's degree in teaching.

And then, days after receiving her master's last June, Melrose landed a job teaching math at Rainier Beach High School.

It's been a rough first year, but the 24-year-old said she mostly loves her job.

"It's exciting to know that I can positively help shape and influence a person's future," she said, standing in her classroom after a recent school day.

There's just one complication: the $65,000 of debt Melrose accumulated at Whitworth.

Together her loan payments would total $378 a month over 14 years. Instead, she is trying to get rid of the debt as quickly as possible. She moved back into her parents' house and is putting most of her paycheck toward the debt.

Why is she so anxious to pay the debt off?

"It's just like this burden over my head," Melrose said. "I feel like I almost can't move on with my life."

Facing uncertainty

Danny Nguyen had a job interview in three days, and he was nervous.

He wouldn't discuss the position out of fear of jinxing it — "this is not a time to take chances," the 25-year-old said — but sitting in a Renton Starbucks earlier this month, he admitted he wanted it badly.

It's not that he'd been unemployed for that long. It had been only two months since he left his last job as an aide to state Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos. But like others his age, failing to find meaningful work has shaken his confidence.

"There are these times alone when your mind perhaps goes further than it should," he said. "You go, 'Yes, I believe my abilities, but luck is a variable in this life.' "

That belief in chance didn't really exist for Nguyen when he was at Hazen.

An awkward, stocky loner who studied at South Seattle Community College through the Running Start program, he graduated high school confident his intelligence would propel him to a good job.

Two years of retail work later, he went to college, eventually earning a political-science degree. It was there that he landed a legislative internship, which led to his full-time gig with Santos.

Losing that job stung, Nguyen said.

"You can't help to be a little bit more pessimistic about the world," he said. "What if I don't find anything, and I have to go back to school? And even then, will I find something? It's always in the back of my mind."

For Tony Washington, the recession has triggered a different type of wariness.

Washington, an athletic kid who worked at Taco Del Mar for most of high school, decided against attending college after Hazen. Instead, he joined a small market-research company.

He's worked at four small businesses since then, spending only six months unemployed. The current gig is a Web position with Anderson Associates, a three-person operation that sells goods on Amazon.

The 24-year-old is back in school, at Edmonds Community College, where he's hoping to learn more Web skills. But after seeing countless news stories about mass layoffs at large companies, he said he will never consider working for one himself.

"I don't really have any faith that a big business will give me any job security," he said. "You just never know."

Remaining resilient

If anybody has a right to feel uncertain, it's Spangler, the bar-association employee in danger of losing her job.

And she is uncertain. With budget-cut decisions expected in the next few weeks, she said, she has no idea what's going to happen. If she gets laid off, she will hit the job market again — a place which last time led her to temporary jobs that made her miserable.

But Spangler, who lives alone in her grandparents' old South Seattle house, is also fiercely optimistic.

Sitting in a downtown Seattle coffee shop on a recent rainy afternoon, she said she doesn't really know why she's so confident things will turn around. She just is.

"I know it will get better," Spangler said. "We just have to have patience and do the best we can for now. But it will get better."

"It has to."

News researcher Gene Balk contributed to this story.

Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or brosenthal@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @brianmrosenthal.

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