The Class of 2009 may find that the recession casts a long shadow, stretching over decades. When the economy finally recovers, many of them will be working in the dim light of thwarted potential. It is not only that unemployment delays careers, but that it obliges graduates to take jobs for which they are ill-suited.
Studies show that graduates entering the job market during a recession earn less than those who got their first break before or after the slump. A professor at the Yale School of Management found that, in the United States, employees who graduated during the 1980s recession earned 6-7% less for every 1-point increase in the unemployment rate. Time does not necessarily bring relief: 15 years later, they were earning 2.5% less than their older and younger colleagues.
A similar fate befell Japanese graduates caught in the wake of Japan’s stock market crash in 1989. Those who had failed to secure jobs immediately upon graduation suffered long-lasting harmful effects, not only on their careers but on their health. Today these workers, now in their thirties, account for 6 out of every 10 reported cases of depression, stress and work-related mental disabilities. Why should this be so? After all, once we have what we want – in this case, steady employment – don’t we tend to forget the bad years and even to make light of them?
Unfortunately, many of those graduates became ‘freeters’, a term for someone who takes on temporary or part-time work for want of anything better. Bosses resisted hiring them for full-time positions because they lacked experience, which of course only frustrated their efforts to acquire any. ‘Freeters’ became synonymous for a lazy, spoilt generation, one that scorned hard work and corporate loyalty. This damning assessment resulted in an unfair and unconscious stigmatization of recession-bred graduates.
It is the stigma of unemployment that is so damaging, as much as the experience of it, as anyone knows who has engaged in the humiliating dialogue with oneself over whether or not to apply for government assistance. The staggering number of 16 to 24-year-olds without jobs today is eroding hope and ambition. In the UK, the sense of worthlessness, that life has little to offer, already has a toe-hold on unemployed youth, according to a recent survey conducted by the Prince's Trust.
Delaying graduation or enrolling for further study can help. Not only is the stain of being ‘unemployed’ wiped from a CV, but extra skills are acquired. Even unpaid internships are valuable. The question then arises: is it wiser for a graduate in computer science to accept an unpaid internship in his or her field or a paid position as manager in a supermarket? When asked about this career detour, has any job applicant out there, hoping to impress a prospective employer by projecting confidence and mastery in her field, ever dared to answer ‘I needed the job’?
Recessions cast a long shadow, and workers with a place in the sun are often unaware that fortune had smiled on them. Graduating a year later or earlier could have made all the difference.