As she starts her new life as an independent adult, 21-year-old Elizabeth Kurtz can lay claim to a $455-a-month one-bedroom apartment in Montgomery, Alabama; a mismatched menagerie of hand-me-down furniture, including a folding “coffee table” exactly big and round enough to hold a single pizza; $30,000 in college-loan debt; a used car with 62,000-plus miles on it; an old-school flip phone that her smartphone-owning friends make fun of; a netbook computer so little it doesn’t have a CD drive; and a salary so small—$12,000 a year—that she gets food stamps to supplement her paycheck and to keep her from having to ask her financially stressed parents for money.
“I don’t have any dreams of a big house,” says Elizabeth. “I don’t have any dreams of a big family or a fancy car.” What she does dream of is a life filled with meaning and purpose, which is why she went to work for the federally funded community service group AmeriCorps for a year after graduating in December from the State University of New York at Potsdam with a degree in political science. AmeriCorps assigned her to Rebuilding Together, an organization that provides free home repairs for low-income families in Montgomery. In addition to her salary, she will receive $5,500 to help pay down her loans. But for Elizabeth, the job has benefits that can’t be tallied on a spreadsheet. “We need to refocus our goals, be a little less selfish, and really think about the bigger picture at hand,” she says. She wants to join the Peace Corps when her year at AmeriCorps ends. “My dream is to be a good person who treats people as good people.”
Elizabeth’s altruism comes, in part, from watching her parents struggle in the past few years. Her mother, an Episcopal priest, and her father, an unemployed IT manager, live in Glendora, California, where Elizabeth grew up with two older brothers and a younger sister. In the last decade, her father, now in his 60s, lost two jobs after the companies he worked for were sold to bigger corporations. “It has made me really fearful of getting stuck in a corporate trap, just trying to earn money,” she says.
Elizabeth graduated in three and a half years instead of four to save tuition. In her final semester, she was working 20 hours a week in the school library and at a research institute. Along with her degree, Elizabeth’s efforts earned her valuable perspective and insight. “Each generation has gotten luckier and luckier,” she says. “I am not sure how much luckier we need to get. How much faster do our iPhones really need to be?”
The worst economic downturn since the Great Depression has left no American unchanged. This includes the group that holds the country’s future in its hands—the millions of young people who have graduated from college since the recession began in December 2007.
They have sometimes been portrayed as lazy, self-absorbed, and immature, content to live in Mom and Dad’s basement and drive their car. More than 40 percent of recent graduates have moved back home, but it’s unfair to call it a lifestyle choice; the unemployment rate for recent college graduates jumped six-fold between 1998 and 2011, from 1.9 to 12.6 percent.
Chronically high unemployment has plagued what should be the start of their careers; in April, four years into a weak recovery, the U.S. unemployment rate was still an ugly 7.5 percent. Only half of grads have found a full-time job, and only 40 percent are in jobs that require a college degree, according to Cliff Zukin, a professor of public policy and political science at Rutgers who studies employment patterns among young people. Their median starting salaries are around $27,000, a 10 percent decline since 2007, and they’re graduating with a median college-loan debt of about $20,000, he says. “There is now more student debt than consumer debt,” says Zukin. “It’s a trillion dollars. It’s completely frightening.”