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Working In These Times

Thursday, Jul 23, 2009, 2:45 pm

Overqualified and Unemployed

BY Michelle Chen

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(Photo courtesy adobemac via flickr)

The latest unemployment figures show that the recession hasn’t even spared the nation’s best and brightest. But what does it say about the economy when you can graduate at the top of your class and find yourself at the back of the unemployment line?

The Wall Street Journal reported recently that people graduating from college during a recession generally earn lower wages than those who entered the workforce in better times, and this wage gap could persist for many years. A separate survey study found that about four in five 2009 college grads didn’t have a job lined up. Over the past generation, the growth in demand for college-educated workers has tapered off, suggesting that high-skill sectors could be reaching a saturation point.

The wave of overqualified generalists temping, waitressing, and retreating to mom and dad’s basement, seems out of sync with the conventional wisdom about the benefits of higher education as a financial asset and, to a limited degree, a socioeconomic equalizer.

Economic Policy Institute analyst Richard Rothstein sees a bigger pattern at work:

Colleges and other educational institutions can influence which students get the more highly-skilled jobs that are available. But colleges and other educational institutions cannot, to a significant extent, affect the number of jobs that are available—highly skilled or otherwise.

Some argue that when the economy picks up, there will be ample demand for workers with college degrees, but even after the recession bottoms out, many young people will remain unable to find a toehold in the increasingly volatile economy:

The Bureau of Labor Statistics has consistently projected that the number of college graduates in the U.S. labor market will continue to match (or exceed) the number of job openings requiring college education. Indeed, BLS finds that many of the largest areas of future job growth in the American economy are in occupations requiring little skill, not even a two-year post-secondary credential – waiters and waitresses, retail salespersons, truck drivers, janitors, home health aides.

In other words, today’s job market offers far too few higher-skill job openings to absorb all the graduates pouring out of colleges, no matter how high their GPA’s or how spiffy their resumes. The stakes are even higher for youth who face additional barriers to economic advancement: institutional discrimination against communities of color; the debt burden besetting students from poor families; or the struggle of young parents to run a household without a steady income.

The labor market data don’t capture the depth of frustration felt by “surplus” graduates, shut out of the workforce and wondering why the opportunity they’ve spent years preparing for keeps eluding them. It’s a recipe for widespread disillusionment, which could ultimately spiral into the kind of social unrest that has emerged in other countries dealing with similar labor force imbalances.

Rothstein points out that widening social inequality aggravates the scarcity of jobs. So if policymakers want people continue to see education as a fundamental social good, rather than a waste of time, they should work towards an economic structure that provides dignity and sustainability for every rung of the economic ladder. Policies that promote unionization, comprehensive social supports, and racial and economic equity help create a labor environment in which workers can fully redeem the value of an education.

The Obama administration recently pledged major investments in higher education to help connect students to solid careers. Instead of just waiting for opportunity to come knocking, young people ought to work at holding Obama to that promise. The country can’t afford to let a generation come of age in an economy that can’t uphold their aspirations.

Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the "Belabored" podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

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