I distinctly remember my ninth grade history teacher telling my class that Generation X (us) would be the last generation to have more than its parents. I think my adolescent brain was damaged from holding up those big, crispy mall bangs or perhaps it was just the arrogance of youth. I mentally scoffed, thinking, “Not me. I’m going to college and getting a good job.”
Fast forward twenty-something years. As I reflect on unemployment and underemployment episodes, I have fed my fifteen-year-old self a big piece of humble pie, as I am sure many Me Generation members have, too. Yes, college-educated Gen-Xers have a comfortable home and a car. But we struggle to keep the lights on. Many “eat” their savings, cashing in the 401(k) to pay for groceries. People often ponder their astronomical debt-to-income ratio. One and one equal two, Baby Boomers reason. College grads have good jobs and financial security. And if you’re good with money, too, that should be another feather in your cap. So why, they wonder and ask, does your one and one equal zero? As I fill people in on our situations, I run into more and more people who are joining the new class: the educated poor. Lately, I commiserate with my EP brothers and sisters and compare and analyze eerily similar stories that brought us to the land of career instability, financial hardship, and sorry to be cliché: broken dreams.
The biggest contributor to the EP crisis is “work spurts.” I, along with many others, have often been hired for what we are led to believe are fairly secure positions (I use the term loosely because no job is secure these days.). But about a year later – or even in less time – the volume of work drops significantly. Time after time, employers woefully told me there just wasn’t enough work to justify keeping me then showed me the door. I may get asked to come back for future projects or to clear another backlog, but it’s common knowledge that unemployment only pays a percentage of your salary. Spending a few months on unemployment here and there throughout my career has strained my bank account to the point of giving it a hernia.
As disconcerting as “work spurts” are, they aren’t the most nefarious contributor. It is the “Twilight Zone hiring” trend. Remember The Twilight Zone episode where unattractive people were desirable and the attractive people were deemed ugly? It wasn’t such a far-fetched concept. I was told I wasn’t selected for the last two jobs I interviewed for because I was “too good.” They considered me capable and even sharp, so they figured I wouldn’t be happy for long with the salary they were offering. In fact, one went on to say, I wouldn’t be happy in the position for long “with all that you’ve done, you know, all that experience.” I thanked the employers for their time but fumed as I thought about the issues a company faces hiring a less-experienced person: the wider gap in the learning curve when training for the position, which takes time and as we all know, time is money. But companies probably figure dollars lost to hiring less-experienced candidates have less impact on their pocketbooks than paying higher salaries to more qualified people.
My EP peers and I have also noted that the more things change, the more they stay the same with salaries. For instance, if you are working a job making $15 an hour, you will probably be making about that much next year, and the year after that. It’s the Twilight Zone mentality’s partner in crime. Taking jobs that kept me afloat present a problem when I pursue higher-paying positions and employers look at my resume. “You were (insert subordinate job here) for three years,” they sneer, “and now you want to be a manager?” It’s the chicken and egg thing, the old catch 22: people want experience, but no one will hire you to give you experience. And if your paycheck amount has changed little since you graduated college and the cost of living goes up, up, up each year, your debt jumps by leaps and bounds.
But after all my career challenges and my financial worries, I keep my eyes on the horizon. I take consolation in the fact that floundering careers give birth to entrepreneurship. I remind myself that I got my most brilliant inspiration and turned out some of my best writing during layoffs. The fifteen-year-old girl in me may be disappointed, but she has risen to the occasion — buoyantly congratulating me every time I sell an article or story, lending me her energy to pound the pavement for work and to sit through yet another nerve-wracking interview. “You can do it,” she says. “You are awesome. We just have to convince the right employer that you are, too.”
Send me your typo images! Snap pictures and email them to firstname.lastname@example.org. They must be real pictures and not images in online links, as those might be doctored. I’m looking for the real McCoy. Conceal the company’s identity if possible. No sweat if you can’t. I’ll hide the name before I post it. We’re not looking to embarrass but to educate.