It is estimated that up to 52% of college graduates between the ages of 22-25 are either unemployed, underemployed or employed by jobs that do not require a college degree. Many of these young adults have worked persistently since childhood, toiling towards excellence in academics and myriad extra-curricular activities. They’ve interned in labs to study the human genome, mapped development strategies for underdeveloped countries and learned how hedge funds aggressively invest the richest of America’s wealth. They sacrificed their summers, after-school hours, and some weekends in the hopes that their efforts would someday pay off with a rewarding profession. Parents were believers as well, and made immense sacrifices of their own to fund their children’s enrichment, motivated, at least in part, by this same professional end-goal.

Yet for many college graduates, tense economic times are curtailing these dreams for now. Loan burdens of up to $150,000 are just one of the challenges encountered by this generation. Importantly, these emerging adults have forever had their esteem inseparably tied to their abilities, and namely, their ability to achieve. Now, despite many students’ most valiant efforts, post-education achievement seems stubbornly out of reach.

The lure of yet another unpaid internship to gain access to a field of interest becomes a catalyst for accepting exploitative conditions. The term “apprenticeship” is becoming popular as a rationale for paying minimum wage to many first time employees.

As Lena Dunham illustrates in the HBO series “Girls”, this period of entering the real world after college can be blistering, both emotionally and financially. At the show’s onset, Hannah, the 24-year old protagonist living in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, has been working at a publishing house, without pay, for just under a year. When she realizes that her hope of eventually being compensated for her labor is moot, she leaves for a low paying job in a field in which she has no long-term interest. There, she is sexually harassed, albeit in a fairly ambiguous manner, by her older male boss. Experiencing disgust and rage, she becomes the aggressor and confronts her boss about his desire to have sex with her: “let’s just get it over with” she suggests. The boss, stunned at her inappropriateness, laughs at her as if she were a child, highlighting the absurdity of the moment. She has been doubly diminished- both her professional and social value have been suddenly debased. Hannah flees to her sexually compulsive and rather cruel boyfriend. We see now that she is emotionally and physically violated in both her work and her intimate life.

Hannah’s experience vividly illustrates the loss of self, self-esteem, self-efficacy in a world of employment scarcity where creativity, intelligence and vision is often overlooked for more mundane skills (we see that one of Hannah’s colleagues was in fact able to gain pay at the publisher due to her facilities with Photoshop). Potentially, self-doubt, depression and anxiety can develop in reaction to the intense struggle to find one’s place in the world based on cherished values and ethics which define the self.

What I have found as a clinician is that dialogue must focus on the socioeconomic conditions in which the college graduate finds him- or herself, that this hiring slow-down is something that occurred for many reasons, often centering on unregulated greed by major institutions. If interested, the patient should become familiar with this history and perhaps attain efficacy via a sense of critique. Their unemployment or underemployment is not a reflection of their strengths and talent. Many decide to take a job outside of their field of interest, but they may continue to be invested in their passions in some form. However, if the volunteering or internship is not a source of new knowledge, it may not be worth the time, particularly if the advantages of the internship prove to be greater for the company than for the graduate. Some take on the risk of entrepreneurship at this point. Most importantly, the fact that the recent college grad may not be able to implement their dreams at a pace they previously thought does not make them any less of a visionary. Good news is that eventually most college graduates do find work that they feel is “good enough,” despite the fact that for many the road is long and windy.

For the family, this is also a trying time as parents too may be struggling financially and wondering if the steep price of college was worth it. Others may continue to support the graduate without an end in sight. A middle ground, which fosters support, mostly in form of validation and understanding seems to have the most emotional traction even though the graduate may be supporting him or herself in a job unlike what was previously imagined.

Probably, most important , if available, is to cultivate support from friends and mentors, tell stories of success but also those involving the absurdities of this process as one confronts narcissism and delusions of grandeur from employers that have such unabashed power of selection. It’s worth the chuckle.

Dr. Ellyn Freedman PsyD, LCSW

Got thoughts or opinions on this topic? A helpful anecdote you want to share? Feel free to leave a comment below.

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