For the young, there's no easy career path

Despite their confidence, the mobility their parents remember is gone

The New York TimesJuly 7, 2010 

  • Among young adults, ages 18-29:

    14 percent are unemployed and seeking work.

    23 percent are not even seeking a job.

— After breakfast, his parents left for their jobs, and Scott Nicholson went to his laptop in the living room.

Nicholson, 24, a graduate of Colgate University, winner of a dean's award for academic excellence, spent his mornings searching corporate websites for job openings. When he found one, he mailed off a resume and cover letter - four or five a week.

Over the past five months, only one job materialized. The Hanover Insurance Group offered to hire him as an associate claims adjuster, at $40,000 a year. But even before the offer, Nicholson decided not to take the job.

Rather than waste early years in dead-end work, he reasoned, he would hold out for a corporate position that would put him on the bottom rungs of a career ladder.

"The conversation I'm going to have with my parents now that I've turned down this job is more of a concern to me than turning down the job," Nicholson said.

He was braced for the conversation with his father in particular. While Nicholson viewed the Hanover job as likely to stunt his career, David Nicholson, 57, accustomed to better times and easier mobility, viewed it as an opportunity. Once in the door, the father has insisted to his son, opportunities will present themselves - as they did in the father's rise over 35 years to general manager of a manufacturing company.

"You maneuvered, and you did not worry what the maneuvering would lead to," the father said. "You knew it would lead to something good."

As the weeks pass, Scott Nicholson, handsome as a Marine officer in a recruiting poster, has gradually realized that his career will not roll out in the Greater Boston area - or anywhere in America - with the easy inevitability that his father recalls and that Scott thought would be his lot, too, when he finished college in 2008.

"I don't think I fully understood the severity of the situation I had graduated into," he said, speaking in effect for an age group - the so-called millennials, 18 to 29. And then he veered into the optimism that, polls show, is persistently, perhaps perversely, characteristic of millennials today. "I am absolutely certain that my job hunt will eventually pay off," he said.

For young adults, the prospects in the workplace have rarely been so bleak. Apart from the 14 percent who are unemployed and seeking work, as Scott Nicholson is, 23 percent are not even seeking a job, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The total, 37 percent, is the highest in more than three decades.

Yet surveys show that the majority of the nation's millennials remain confident, as Scott Nicholson is, that they will have satisfactory careers. They have a lot going for them.

"They are better educated than previous generations and they were raised by baby boomers who lavished a lot of attention on their children," said Andrew Kohut, the Pew Research Center's director.

That helps to explain their persistent optimism, even as they struggle to succeed.

Nicholson almost sidestepped the recession. His plan was to become a Marine Corps second lieutenant.

It was not to be. In early January, a Marine Corps doctor noticed that he had suffered from childhood asthma. He was washed out.

So he struggles to get a foothold in the civilian workforce. His brother in Boston lost his roommate, and early last month Nicholson moved into the empty bedroom, with his parents paying Nicholson's share of the $2,000-a-month rent until the lease expires Aug. 31.

And if Nicholson does not have a job by then?

"I'll do something temporary; I won't go back home," Nicholson said. "I'll be a bartender or get work through a temp agency. I hope I don't find myself in that position."

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