13 Tips for Jobless Grads on Surviving the Basement Years

A how-to guide for recent grads who have yet to find the job they really want

If you're a recent college graduate, I commend to you this story from the Wall Street Journal on the peripatetic career paths of the Ohio State Class of 2008. With the financial markets crashing, these kids ended up taking jobs they didn't want in places they didn't want to be -- or moving into mom's basement while they struggled to forge a career out of their thin employment prospects. But the kids the Wall Street Journal interviewed are (except for one sad chap who decided to move to New York) basically OK. They're not doing what they thought they'd be doing. Still, they're having good lives, and even good careers, though it took them longer than it took luckier classes that graduated in more prosperous times.

Don't get me wrong, youngsters: I feel your pain. I graduated from business school in 2001. The job I had lined up with a management consulting firm evaporated, with the coup-de-grace delivered just as the MBA Class of 2002 began recruiting. Suddenly I was competing with kids who hadn't lost a job -- and even though the job loss wasn't my fault (my whole class was laid off), employers didn't see why they should take a chance on an unemployed person. To make matters worse, I spent a year doing administrative work in a trailer at the World Trade Center disaster recovery site, rather than immediately looking for a new "career" job. To make matters still worse, my previous job had been in the tech industry. There was about a year and a half when I had no idea where I was going to find another full-time job. I began to think I had inadvertently ruined my life.

Eventually, I got a job with the Economist magazine, which I found because of this blog I'd started while working at the World Trade Center. Ten years later, things are pretty much all right. Okay, I got lucky ... but you know what? As the Journal article shows, eventually, if you keep moving, you'll probably get lucky too. So here are some hard-but-hopeful truths for the classes of 2008-13, inclusive:

1. You need to take a job, any job. Every time you leave your house, or otherwise make contact with the real world, you create opportunities for something good to happen to your career. Leaving the house also keeps you from falling prey to depression, which tends to plague the unemployed like, well, the plague. Also, it's easier not to look completely desperate when you have a little money coming in. "Desperate" is not a good look to wear to a job interview.

2. Don't say you can't work a lesser job because you won't be able to focus on your job search. After the first few weeks, your job search is not taking you 60 hours a week. There just aren't that many prospects out there. Don't give yourself excuses to stay home and sulk and/or sponge off mom and dad -- who will, incidentally, be much happier to have you in the basement if you're visibly working hard.

3. Enjoy your time back with your parents. No, seriously. I moved back in with my parents when I was 29, and stayed there for three years. This is exactly as embarrassing as it sounds. But I also really enjoyed the conversations I struck up with my dad, or spending Saturday afternoons baking with my mom. Eventually, I promise, you will move out and get your own apartment and marry and all those other adult things. This is the last chance you have to enjoy the house you grew up in, with the adults who raised you.

4. Embrace rejection. In a booming labor market, it's easy to fall into a good job. In a bad labor market, the only way many of you are going to get a good job -- or get ahead -- is to ask. You know how I found the job at the Economist? I met a woman who worked there at a cocktail party for bloggers, and told her that if they ever had a job opening, to please please please pretty please e-mail me. She did. That was a comparatively small ask. But at other points in my career, I've had to make big asks: tell people that I wanted a new job, and ask them to please consider me for one they had. Most of them said no, and that doesn't feel good. The thing to remember is that it only takes one, and that there's really no way to find that one other than to ask a lot of non-ones. The temptation when you're applying for jobs is to send resumes and cover letters off to anonymous services like Monster, because then you never have to hear the word no. But as you probably already know, instead what you hear is nothing, because millions of other people are doing the same thing. You're going to have to do what most of them are too afraid to do: make personal connections with people and ask them to help you find a better job -- maybe by hiring you. Most of them won't, and that will suck. But it will suck even more to get stuck in place, so put on your big-kid pants and go ask some people to reject you.

5. Find some passion for your spare time. In my case it was my blog. But it could be anything. Having a strong hobby validates you when your career doesn't, and it might even (eventually) help you find a job. Other people with your hobby have jobs, some of them at companies that are hiring.

6. Admit you're broke -- and that's okay. If you've had to take a kind of lousy job that doesn't pay much, I want you to do this exercise. Go to the mirror. Take a long, loving look at yourself. And then repeat after me: "I can't afford it." That is what you say to friends who suggest going out when you don't really make enough money to even stay in. It's what you say to yourself when you're feeling bad and want a splurge. There is nothing shameful about making very little money, so there's no reason you shouldn't tell your friends that you're on a tight budget. You don't need thousands in credit card debt to add to your problems.

7. Don't default on your student loans. They're not bankruptable, the fees will pile up and you will spend many an unhappy hour dodging collectors' calls. Defer, or put them on income-based repayment. But don't default.

8. Let go of your ideas about what you're entitled to. You've never seen such a pack of whiners as my b-school class when we all got laid off and had to find new jobs that paid less than the ones we'd been expecting. Hadn't we gone to a top business school, worked hard and done everything we were supposed to? How dare this happen to us! Message from the Universe: you got an above-average deal the minute you were born in America in the late 20th century, instead of in Europe in the middle of the Black Death, or in Angola in the middle of a civil war. Anything you get on top of that is strictly bonus -- and that goes double for middle-class college graduates. The longer you spend pining for what you lost, the harder it will be for you to find a new job. Employers like people who accept reality and move on, not people who spend their days complaining that they're not being given their due.

9. Have more than one iron in the fire. The more options you're pursuing, the more likely one of them is to turn into a job. When the Economist hired me, I was also trying to get a tech consulting business off the ground. Frankly, that was the more likely candidate for a full-time job. You can probably do more than one thing, so try as many as possible.

10. Let this open you up to things you'd never have considered. I had no plans to be a journalist; I stumbled into it. And if I'd had better-paying options, I might not have dared to take that job at the Economist, because financially, it was a huge struggle: My disposable monthly income, after loans, rent and taxes, was in the low hundreds. But I love journalism more than any other possible career I could imagine. It may end up being a good thing that the Great Recession shocked you out of "normal" and into "scramble" mode. By closing off the safe standard options, it may free you to do something a bit risky, but hugely rewarding.

11. If you really want to work somewhere, volunteer to work unpaid. Take it as a second job -- nights, weekends, whatever. Yes, this will cut into your social life. So will working at Target, in your thirties.

12. That afraid feeling you have is never really going away. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but folks who were raised in the Great Depression were kind of neurotic penny-pinchers who fretted about financial security far more than the prosperous generations before and after. (Ask your parents about the older relatives who collected tin foil and rubber bands in big balls so that you could reuse them. I kid you not. That was a Thing Grandparents Did when I was growing up.) The bad news is that I, too, am also an obsessive penny pincher -- after two years of massive job uncertainty, followed by more years of earning much less money than my student loans would suggest. The good news is that your fear will end up having surprising upsides: there's a reason that the U.S. household savings rate peaked right along with the earnings of the Great Depression kids. When they retired, savings went off a cliff. So instead of letting your fear ride you, use it constructively, to make you thriftier and more careful.

13. It's going to be OK. Really. I swear. As far as I know, zero percent of my classmates are still living in their parents' basement 12 years after graduation. Their career paths have been a little more uneven than most, but they still have all the stuff that really matters: families, friends, a paycheck, 2,000 square feet of hardwood floors and granite that they can spend their weekends complaining about the costs of repairing. I can't tell you when it will come out all right, or how. All I can tell you is that if you keep working and asking, you are going to find something pretty OK to do with the rest of your life.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

    To contact the author on this story:
    Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

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