Money Culture

Graduating in Era of Low Opportunity

Philip Seymour Hoffman playing the washed-up salesman, Willy Loman, in “Death of a Salesman,” is all the rage on Broadway. But when I saw the play recently, it was Biff who got me thinking about young adults today.

In the Arthur Miller classic, Willy anguishes over son Biff’s failure to hold down a job in the city. But the irony is that Biff, played by Andrew Garfield, probably did very well for himself after leaving Brooklyn for Texas. I imagine he became an oil baron or wound up owning substantial real estate in downtown Houston.

Young people graduating from high school or college today don’t have the virtually unlimited opportunity that existed in the 1940s when Miller wrote the play: the personal drive to find a job and establish a career is not enough anymore. Young graduates who sign up for unpaid internships and double up on college degrees are well aware of this.

Last year, 54 percent of adults ages 18 to 24 were employed – that was the lowest level since the government started tracking the data, in 1948 – according to a February report by the Pew Research Center. Despite an improving job market, it was only 55 percent in March. Job creation – 115,000 were added in April – is below the pace that will open up meaningful opportunity for young people.

Problems arising from a sluggish job market are compounded by large college loan balances and crippling payment schedules. And young adults today – unlike Biff’s generation – will have to save for their own retirement. The earlier they start, the better off they’ll be. Regardless of how difficult it is to save, young adults should try to find ways of doing so. It’s more important than ever.

But becoming a financially independent adult is “much harder for this generation of young people,” said Kim Parker, associate director of Pew’s Social and Demographic Trends Project.

This isn’t just young adults’ own view, she said. “(Y)oung people, middle-age people, older people … think the recession has been hardest on young people.”

Out of earshot of his father, Biff admits to his brother, Happy, that he feels “lost.” He dreams of returning to Texas where he had worked briefly on a farm, because his current job offers no hope. “All I can do is wait for the merchandise manager to die,” he says.

Pew’s survey found that nearly 50 percent of young people ages 18 to 34 take jobs they don’t want. They also accept unpaid jobs for the experience (24 percent); postpone getting married (31 percent) or having a baby (22 percent), or move back in with their parents (24 percent). Times have changed, but the last thing their parents – the baby boomers – wanted was to move back home and sacrifice their independence.

Nevertheless, the optimism of youth shines through Pew’s survey: nearly 90 percent said they either earn enough money now or expect to in the future. That’s their biggest asset and an important thing they share with Biff.

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