Overeducated, Underemployed and in Debt: What Now?

Graduation money(Image: Graduation money via Shutterstock)“The present generation is the richest generation.” At least in broad strokes, that statement has been more or less continuously true throughout history.

You may ask why I give the qualification “broad strokes.”

Well, though there has been a general trend upwards in standard of living — albeit with plenty of dips now and again — this trend only affects the average person, and sometimes the average person doesn’t resemble anyone you know. In fact, not only are there huge class disparities in Western nations today, there are also generational disparities. Middle-class individuals in their 20s and 30s are facing a perfect storm of a tough job market, higher student debt and brutal housing prices.

The Generation Squeeze campaign, led by UBC professor Paul Kershaw, is intended to shine a light on this inequity and, ultimately, help to mitigate it.

This isn’t a war of the generations, and I hope nobody sees it that way. I’m very pleased that members of my family who have worked hard all their lives are reaching pension age, seeing an increase in their home values and generally feeling secure. It makes me happy to worry less about my extended family financially. Likewise, I know how glad they would be to reduce my mortgage to something more manageable.

However, there is a disparity and it’s far from abstract. So many individuals my age are underemployed; I worry that the word will lose meaning and simply become the new normal for young workers.

When my cohort completed teacher training a scant six years ago, my fellow new educators and I had in mind a fairly predictable and safe career path. Some of us would be employed immediately, while some of us might have to work as substitute teachers for the first year, or, at most, two. By 2013, we thought we should all be well established with full-time work, the security of a permanent contract (a.k.a. tenure) and our preferred assignments.

Instead, one friend of mine has become a professional substitute, coaching for the schools he works at regularly and working a second job at night since his daily pay is less than half of what a salaried teacher would make. Another is forced to leave his wife and son for months at a time, taking term jobs at remote northern towns for months at a time — an information age equivalent of the migrant farm worker. Another left teaching to work at a dairy, and she has been the most successful of all. Each of us has multiple degrees, but that doesn’t mean as much as it used to.

Of course, unemployment and underemployment are a concern in most any field you care to mention. I know an experienced accountant who has been forced to take work as a payroll clerk, an apprentice electrician who works in the wash bay of an automotive garage and an MBA grad who works as a receptionist. The list goes on.

Most of us entering the work force in the last decade have since severely altered our salary and work environment expectations. We’ve written before about the exploitive unpaid internships desperate candidates sign up for.

Meanwhile, there’s still all that student debt, soaring housing costs and rent is climbing to match. Many individuals are putting off having children, waiting for a financial stability that may not even be achievable. It’s true that some things are cheaper than they used to be. Our parents never had iPhones, and if they were around, they would have been exorbitantly expensive. However, Gen Squeeze’s Kerhsaw also makes the point that time is money, and staying afloat costs us the time we need to raise a family as well.

Are there any silver linings to all this? Perhaps a few. People are hurting and perhaps that means they’ll be more politically involved, which tends to make elected representatives more accountable. An educated and aware populace is necessary for effective democracy, and getting engaged is a first step in that.

It’s harder to raise a family, but overpopulation is linked to many of our economic, political and environmental problems. There are a myriad of other issues at play here, but to some extent, at least, delaying and therefore having smaller families is a good thing.

Gen X and Y are fast becoming the most capable, creative, entrepreneurial group of people in generations. If the job market weren’t so tough, my CV probably wouldn’t be nearly so impressive. A diverse array of skills in a population that has learned to be fearless in their career adventures might well benefit those fields, and society in general.

The only constant in life is change. To some degree, there’s a privilege in living through a period of uncertainty. We know this is a time that will one day be in history textbooks, and we have the chance to get a little stronger.

There are limits though. We still need to make a living.