The unemployment rate for young workers between the ages of 16 and 23 is 18%, and that is an increase of five points from a year ago. That age group includes high school drop-outs as well as college graduates, and for these people the future looks bleak. Adults are taking the minimum-wage jobs teenagers might be offered in other economic situations. Older workers, otherwise approaching retirement, are not leaving the workforce as quickly. The openings for younger workers aren’t there.
The bad news is starting your career in a recession is one of the worst things you can do for your long-term financial security. More bad news is that there is little any one person can do about the economy at large. Here are the numbers, from a study at Yale quoted in the cover story in today’s BusinessWeek:
For each percentage-point rise in the unemployment rate, those who graduated during the recession earned 6% to 7% less in their first year of employment than their more fortunate counterparts. Even 15 years out of school, the recession graduates earned 2.5% less than those who began working in more prosperous times.
Young adults might be destined to be a “lost generation.” Here are some suggestions for 16-to-23-year-olds who find themselves having a difficult time starting their career in this recession and want to mitigate its effects on long-term income.
1. Finish your education
It’s an issue of supply and demand. First, if you have not done so, completing your Bachelor’s degree will have two important effects. First, it will improve your marketability among entry-level employees when fewer open positions will create a competitiveness that ensures that the best qualified candidates will win. A Bachelor’s degree is a gateway to at least the middle class, and that’s going to be more important than ever.
Second, finishing college now will keep you out of the worst of the recession. This will allow you to stay out of the worst fight for jobs, but it has some drawbacks. Delaying the start of full-time income can also have detrimental effects on your long-term income — but if you wouldn’t be working anyway, this isn’t much of a disadvantage. Also, if you are relying on student loans, you will be amassing more debt that will require payoff down the road, perhaps shacking you to a job or career that is not best for you. New student loans have higher interest rates than they have in the past, adding to the pain of debt.
If you have your Bachelor’s degree, consider spending a few years to earn your Master’s or Doctorate degree. Are you worried about being overqualified? Don’t be. As we’re seeing in the recession where many workers are competing for few jobs, anything that helps you stand above the rest will be an advantage rather than a disadvantage. You might want to consider adapting your desired career to one better suited for an advanced degree, however.
2. Become an apprentice
In general, apprentices earn more throughout their careers than those who don’t hone their skills in a formal training program. Traditionally, apprenticeships are common for certain crafts and trades. Electricians, plumbers, and carpenters often get their starts through apprenticeship and there is significant income potential in these fields.
One creative answer is to become an apprentice for a career that does not traditionally fit this profile. For example, if you have musical talent and would normally consider performing or teaching in a better economy, consider composing music for films or television. You can contact a professional currently in the field and contact them about becoming an apprentice. One key to successfully finding an apprenticeship is the willingness and the ability to work for free.
3. Start your own business
I’m not talking about selling your possessions on eBay, but padding your savings account with cash rather than padding your home with useless objects is never a bad idea. Everyone has at least one marketable skill. It may require some time brainstorming to determine exactly how you can turn your skills into a service you can offer people or other businesses.
A recession is perfect timing to start a business, particularly if you can dedicate all your time to making it work (that is, you are otherwise unemployed). Many new businesses suffer because the owner needs to devote his or her time to the day job, a spouse, and perhaps even children. For young workers, the time will likely never be better for starting a business with the ability of giving it your full attention.
4. Save money
As a recent graduate or drop-out, you may have the option to move back in with your parents for a short time. After all, there is a recession and being able to save money on rent or a house payment is worth the temporary shame you might feel for going home with your tail between your legs. This is most likely the biggest opportunity for savings, but you don’t want to take advantage of the situation. Show your parents that you’re working hard to make the recession work for you, and they’re more likely to give you a break. And don’t forget to express gratitude.
Consider frugality as a way of life. In an economy where you have less control over your income thanks to fewer employment options, you can still control your expenses to a point. Take the extra time to determine what you are willing to cut back in order to help your money go farther. Occasionally, generic brands and store brands are good compromises.
Creativity leads to success
Surviving in a recession where it’s difficult to find a job relies on creative thinking. Use the opportunity to rethink your career path. If the acquisition of money has been your ultimate goal, realize that money by itself is not a goal. You may use the opportunity to break into a less popular field with a lower income potential but with a greater satisfaction potential.
Accept that the odds are against you if you want to compare yourself and your bank account against people who began their careers in the height of the economy, people who, on average, will out-earn those entering the workforce right now.
Updated January 16, 2010 and originally published October 19, 2009.