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Why Can’t College Graduates Find College-Graduate Work?

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Good luck on the job hunt, grads. You're gonna need it.

CREDIT: Flickr / scot2342

Kate really wants to work in Washington. This young Ivy League alumna, recently profiled in the Washingtonian, has been interning for a year and a half—at a political outfit, a media company and now a law firm. Until she finds salaried professional work, Kate is waiting tables in the evenings to make ends meet, which means she often works 15-hour days.

About half of recent grads are, like Kate, in jobs that don't require a four-year degree, and the problem is only going to get worse. In the next decade the number of degree-holders will grow more than twice as fast as the growth in jobs that require them.

Why then, are so many young Americans like Kate dead set on college-level employment? And why are they willing to take on tens of thousands of dollars of potentially crippling student loan debt in order to secure a college education?

Here's a hypothesis: What if the overstock of American college graduates is not a reflection on the market for educated labor, but rather on the decreasing quality of alternatives?

In the eyes of many Americans, "It's either 'I have to go to college or I'm going to work at Wal-mart,'" Janelle Jones, researcher at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, said. Jones co-authored the report "Where Have All the Good Jobs Gone?" which found that since 1979, the economy's ability to generate what the authors consider "good jobs" has diminished by about a third. This is due to deregulation, privatization, a declining minimum wage and a decrease in union membership.

The Atlantic's Richard Florida wrote last year that with the decline of American manufacturing, workers in the U.S. now fall mostly into one of two classes. The creative class, about a third of working Americans, averages more than $70,000 in take-home pay. Meanwhile, everyone else—about 60 million people—are in the service class, and make an average of just over $30,000.

So where does college fit in to all this? To oversimplify, young Americans once faced a choice between going to college and working a unionized manufacturing or government job with benefits and a middle-class wage. The choice now is between trying to angle your way into the creative class, or working for tips at a restaurant with no benefits or job security.

"The restaurant offered me something full-time, but that’s not a field I want to go into," Kate told the Washingtonian. Can you blame her?

Chris Lewis is a reporter at Campus Progress. Follow him on Twitter @chris_lewis_.

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