Life has a tendency to rebel against our attempts to make it unfold according to a schedule. Try as we might to think ahead and plan for the future, there are always enough unforeseen detours to take us off our predetermined course. Part of aging and becoming wiser is realizing that life gets in the way of the best laid plans. This is not to say that falling off the schedule is without consequences. New data is showing what we already know to be the case, at least intuitively: pre-Great Recession college graduates found jobs more quickly and earned more when compared to post-GR graduates. With voluntary exits from the workforce slowing to a trickle, young people hired in 2012 will also have a harder time advancing in their careers than previous generations. In short, perhaps it is unavoidable that the Classes of 2009-2012 will end up wasting two or three years of their lives doing grunt work until finding a decent job, but that delay represents a loss of earnings and a loss of professional capital that young workers will never make back.
While I've had the good fortune of being continuously gainfully employed throughout the downturn, this is one topic on which I think my example is somewhat illustrative. I began looking for a tenure-track job in 2008 and found one four years and hundreds of applications later in early 2012. In the interim, I worked in a temporary position with all the concomitant benefits – no opportunity for advancement, low salary, high workload, no resources, etc. Compare this course of events to an alternate history in which 2008 was a modal year for the job market in my field. Not landing a real job at the outset has cost me, over this four year period, a conservative estimate of $50-60,000 in salary that I will never earn back (picture the value of that amount, for example, invested until retirement age) and a lengthy delay in beginning the long, slow process of career advancement. If I go up for tenure before I'm 40 it will be a miracle, compared to the more common practice of doing it in one's early 30s. Don't weep for me; I don't live in a cardboard box and I'm not going hungry, but the point holds that the delay in getting started in a profession is a costly one with both short- and long-term consequences.
There's no amount of elbow grease or bootstrap pulling that can make up for two, three, or even five years after graduation spent living in Mom and Dad's basement, making coffee for $7.75/hr, or "interning" (i.e., working for free). Those are wasted years, in the economic sense, that you will never get back. And this is becoming a disturbingly common experience for heavily indebted college graduates. Some combination of unemployment, substantial underemployment, or continued dependence on parental resources (if available) are the rule rather than the exception no matter how we slice the data.
Perhaps the worst aspect of this is not the economic cost to young workers but the psychological shift that accompanies changing expectations. Not only are things not improving, but it's getting to a point at which no one really expects them to improve. Failing to find a career or at least a decently compensated job is the new normal, much as moving back in with the parents now fails to raise eyebrows. Young adults enter the Real World for which college supposedly prepares them with a sense of fatalism and a stunted process of personal and social maturation. Moving back in with the parents, for example, halts the process of learning basic adult skills – living on one's own, cooking, paying bills, budgeting, and so on – that the school-to-work transition is supposed to encourage. Not only are young people losing income that they will never regain, but they are potentially extending an adolescence that already lasts too long in our society (with its college culture that encourages juvenile, irresponsible behavior into one's early twenties).
The solution is not specific to this demographic. Instead, their success depends on stronger demand for workers overall. While the weak economy continues to hurt nearly everyone in some way, it will be easier for those of us already on the train to hold on during the bumpy ride than it will be for young people chasing the train on foot to get aboard.