Pessimistic Prospects of a 20-Something: Scenes From a Job Fair

by Julia Clunn | August 23, 2011 1:01 am

No one is untouched by the economic problems our country currently faces. At the very least we all know someone who has been foreclosed on, have a family member who has lost a job, or seen a friend’s retirement plan dwindle  with the see-sawing stock market. My generation, the recent graduates, the 18-29 year olds, face these problems head-on. Loans and unemployment strike us just as we are trying to establish ourselves in the working world.

I’ve already expressed my personal take on the plight of the Millennials, but I wonder if the outlook of all the other struggling 20-somethings is as bleak as my own. To find out how truly pessimistic my unemployed peers are, I headed to a recent DC job fair.

The day began with optimism as the first young people I talked to were two 21 year old women standing behind me in line. Neither of them had post-secondary degrees, yet they still seemed to be confident that their own skills would help them shine. “Experience will get me the job” claimed one woman, who actually was currently employed, but looking for a career instead of a job. And while they both agreed that a degree would be helpful, they both said that youth was an advantage that would put them on top. I was overjoyed to hear such optimism, but then our conversation was interrupted when they were kicked out of line; this was a DC residents-only job fair, and both of them live just over the border in Maryland. Their enthusiasm never even made it through the door.

Nonetheless, at the beginning of the event, I heard mostly positive attitudes about finding a job.

Most of the young attendees I spoke to were inclined to think our age is an advantage; we are quicker, more energetic, and our schooling (it feels like) has been more rigorous and informative.  We have less at stake and more freedom (no mortgage and no family to worry about).

Yet as the event progressed, I heard more of the disadvantages too. Having less at stake means we’re also more easily distracted (or as one young man put it, a 40 year-old with a mortgage is going to be far more focused than a 22 year-old who still parties on a Thursday night). Stephanie, a 19 year old who has been looking for work for 6 months says that getting simple, low-wage jobs like retail are easy for younger folk to get, but desk jobs require self-discipline, something not every 20 year old has. Translation: real “careers” are reserved for the serious and more mature.

The biggest complaint of the day was that no one at the fair was even taking resumes. “Everyone’s online now” explained a 24 year old man who has been unemployed for a year and a half. And while online applications may be far more efficient, it also means further separation from actual face-time with a potential employee. The benefit of the job fair is that you actually get to meet employers; putting it online means you are still no more than a resume, placing one more step between a person and the job.

Later, I stood by the exit to get people’s reactions. There I met a young woman from Malawi named Pahtso. She is currently barely employed and wants to look for better work, but has to either be employed or in school in order to remain in the country. She cites how people with degrees are taking pay cuts to stay employed, meaning that anyone lower on the food chain can’t ask for a raise even if they are struggling to get by.

When asked whether being young is an advantage in the job market, she gave the knee-jerk response of the 20-something. “Of course! We are the next great thing.” But then she stopped, and thought for a second about all those complaints about competition she had just made. I noted how she was walking out of the job fair early, without a new job in hand.

Pahtso asked if she could change her answer. Employers want experience, she finally admitted, and they aren’t giving us any chances. But even that realization couldn’t keep her down. “But I’m a fighter.” She said with a smile springing back to her face. “And I’m coming out!”

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