American Dream Fades for Generation Y ProfessionalsElliot Blair Smith
After being dismissed from her job as a Midtown Manhattan securities attorney in October 2009, Christina Tretter-Herriger hitched a used horse trailer to her Dodge Ram pickup and drove 1,628 miles to Texas.
The 32-year-old lawyer sold skin-care products in Houston before finding work as the assistant general counsel of a futures-trading firm where an irate customer punctuated a recorded voice-mail message with gunfire.
“No one was left with the impression that he just happened to be phoning from a sporting clays range,” she says.
Eighteen months and two busted jobs later, the daughter of a retired physician and a former editor at Vogue circled back to upstate New York and hunkered down at a small legal office that pays about one-quarter of her former $165,000 salary.
Generation Y professionals entering the workforce are finding careers that once were gateways to high pay and upwardly mobile lives turning into detours and dead ends. Average incomes for individuals ages 25 to 34 have fallen 8 percent, double the adult population’s total drop, since the recession began in December 2007. Their unemployment rate remains stuck one-half to 1 percentage point above the national figure.
Three and a half years after the worst recession since the Great Depression, the earnings and employment gap between those in the under-35 population and their parents and grandparents threatens to unravel the American dream of each generation doing better than the last. The nation’s younger workers have benefited least from an economic recovery that has been the most uneven in recent history.
“This generation will be permanently depressed and will be on a lower path of income for probably all of their life -- and at least the next 10 years,” says Rutgers professor Cliff Zukin, a senior research fellow at the university’s John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development. Professionals who start out in jobs other than their first choice tend to stay on the alternative path, earning less than they would have otherwise while becoming less likely to start over again later in preferred fields, Zukin says.
Michael Greenstone, who was chief economist at the White House Council of Economic Advisers in 2009 and 2010, says the shift to a downwardly mobile society may be lasting. “Children are not earning as much as their parents, and I think we’re laying the seeds for that to continue into the future,” he says.
Only one-fifth of those who graduated college since 2006 expect greater success than their parents, a Rutgers survey found earlier this year. Little more than half were working full time. Just one in five said their job put them on a career path.
Those who finish only high school or drop out fare worse. Almost four out of five jobs destroyed by the recession were held by workers with a high school diploma or less, according to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.
Middle-income jobs are disappearing for a wide range of young professionals. The number of financial counselors and loan officers ages 25 to 34 has dropped 40 percent since 2007, outpacing the 30 percent drop in total jobs for the profession, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Similarly, the number of hours logged by first-year and mid-level legal associates -- a productivity measure of young lawyers -- fell 12 percent from 2007 at some of New York’s largest law firms, says Jeff Grossman, national managing director of Wells Fargo Private Bank’s Legal Specialty Group in Charlotte, North Carolina. Yet profits per partner climbed $50,697 to $1.5 million on revenue of $66 billion last year, according to a separate survey of 86 of the world’s top law firms by The American Lawyer magazine.
“I had a lot of faith in the system, the mythology that if you work really hard you can achieve anything, and the stock market always goes up,” says 2009 law school graduate Elizabeth Hallock, 33. “It was pretty naïve on my part.”
Hallock is the named plaintiff in one of 14 lawsuits against some of the nation’s best-known law schools, including her alma mater, the University of San Francisco School of Law. The civil complaints, filed in 2011 and 2012, accuse the institutions of overstating graduates’ job-placement results and incomes.
Young Americans are struggling to reconcile their lack of economic rewards with their relatively privileged upbringings by Baby Boomer parents and the material success of their older peers, Generation X, born in the late 1960s and 1970s, says Kathy Sheehan, general manager of GfK Consumer Trends and Roper Reports, a unit of German-based research firm GfK.
“It’s a generation that had really high expectations, in some part driven by the way they were raised by their boomer parents,” she says. “Yet in the past five years they have had reality slammed in their face by the employment situation.”
About 61 million people, one-fifth of the U.S. population, work at jobs where median earnings declined since 2007 even as the 1.2 million households whose incomes put them in the top 1 percent saw their pay rise 5.5 percent last year. Younger workers are experiencing the worst of the disparity in part because they’re being displaced by older workers. The number of employees ages 55 to 64 is expected to surpass the under-24 working population by 2020 for the first time since at least World War II, according to the BLS.
Dashed expectations crimped even some of the most innovative corners of the economy. Daniel White was wrapping up a week-long vacation to Vermont two summers ago when a co-worker at Chicago-based Groupon Inc. called to share the news that White was about to be fired from the e-commerce discounter.
The 27-year-old business school graduate was living from paycheck to paycheck, cold-calling hair salons and pizza parlors in Youngstown, Ohio, from crowded offices at company headquarters when he found himself out on the street.
“To be honest, I’m glad it happened,” he says. “I guess I owe that to Steve Jobs, who made getting fired cool.”
This year, White says, he hopes to earn $2,000 at his own startup Web-sales venture in Burlington, Vermont, seeing technology as the one path to potentially matching his father’s generation, “the people with the money and power.”
In more traditional jobs, the fallout from the subprime-mortgage collapse a half-decade ago continues to pummel people, including the architects who designed homes. The number of them ages 25 to 34 has fallen by 41 percent since 2007, compared with the total drop in the profession of 25 percent.
At the Seattle architectural firm of Callison LLC, faces and names began to disappear from the staff directory almost immediately after new hire Eli Hardi joined in January 2008.
“People would drop off on a daily basis,” says Hardi, 28, a recent graduate of a five-year architecture degree program in California. Within a few months, Hardi rose from an hourly to salaried position. The promotion wiped out overtime pay and reduced his annual income by 12 percent to $39,500, he says.
The smaller paycheck reflected cost-cutting that has erased 40 percent of U.S. architectural firms’ revenue and almost one-third of their personnel since early 2008, according to the American Institute of Architects in Washington.
Hardi worked through Christmas and New Year’s before being laid off during the first week of January 2009, 13 months after his hiring. He walked home in the cold to his apartment and new big-screen TV that was now a symbol of his uprooted ambitions.
“It’s a bit sudden, a bit jarring,” he says. Still, “there’s a certain sense of relief that you don’t have to deal with the sword hanging over your head. I almost felt worse for the people who had to stay, knowing they might lose their jobs.”
Architecture graduates ages 25 to 29 had the highest unemployment rate of 57 degree programs surveyed by the Education Department in 2009. Their 9.6 percent jobless level rivaled the 10.6 percent unemployment for all Americans ages 25 to 29 that year, including those without college degrees. Nursing fared the best with a 1.5 percent jobless rate.
Hardi was called back, at his previous salary, in January 2010 as Callison won store-design work for Apple Inc.
“The hours were long, the pay was low and we got a notice saying the bonus would be minimal,” he says. “The hardest part, I found, is to maintain your own self respect and dignity.” In March, he quit to join a smaller firm where he works on historical renovations.
The same housing crash that hammered young architects and loan officers also slammed lawyers. Law schools are turning out about 45,000 degree holders a year for about 25,000 full-time positions available to them, according to the National Association for Law Placement Inc. in Washington. The class of 2011 had the lowest placement with law firms, 49.5 percent, in 36 years.
“It is not the perfect path to wealth and success that people may have envisioned,” says Robin Sparkman, editor in chief of The American Lawyer magazine in New York.
Some of the disenchanted have taken their complaints to court. Plaintiffs’ attorneys and recent law-school graduates are pushing to change what they call law schools’ overstated reports of post-graduation employment numbers. The results are used in magazine rankings of the institutions and to recruit new applicants. In state-court lawsuits, the former students allege false advertising and consumer fraud.
The claims are “meritless,” says Angie Davis, spokeswoman for the University of San Francisco School of Law. “We are sympathetic to the difficulty faced by law school graduates nationwide in finding employment on the heels of the Great Recession,” she says, adding the university helps students find work, and many have found “successful, rewarding careers.”
With the lawsuits playing out, the Chicago-based American Bar Association began requiring accredited schools to disclose far more detailed information about new graduates’ employment beginning in December 2011.
This July, San Francisco County Superior Court Judge Harold Kahn allowed lawsuits against USF and Golden Gate University to proceed, ruling that some law-school graduates may have a basis for claims that they were deceived. Judges in Illinois and Michigan rejected similar complaints.
“It’s hard to look at the information the schools were putting out and say it’s not misleading,” says Derek Tokaz, research director of the nonprofit Law School Transparency initiative. It published research showing that the chance of recent graduates getting permanent full-time work in law was far lower than the 80-95 percent total employment rates the schools typically boasted.
Tokaz, 28, worked with Tretter-Herriger at the Manhattan law firm of Curtis, Mallet-Prevost, Colt & Mosle LLP. She joined the firm in September 2008, the same month that Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. collapsed, gradually setting off panic on Wall Street and around the world.
The late nights and long weeks awaited by first-year associates as a grueling rite of passage didn’t come, she says. Instead, there was so little work to do that the hedge fund lawyers and recruiters she worked with frequently retreated after lunch to a street-level pub to watch English soccer.
Tretter-Herriger says she and some other first-year associates were fired 13 months later with the proviso they could keep their desks and look for jobs through October. She found one at the Houston futures trading firm. When it later outsourced some of its legal work, she moved on again and answered an ad on Craigslist for a job in Buffalo, New York.
She now complements her $45,000 lawyer’s salary by training horses and giving riding lessons. She says she’d like to buy a rental property and become self-sufficient in case she loses this job.
“As it is, all of my possessions still fit in the back of my truck,” she says. “I can pack it in a couple hours, pick up the trailer and horses and move anywhere the gas tank will take me at the drop of a hat. What can the system take away from you when you have that kind of freedom?”
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