Depressed and can’t find a job? Here’s why it’s not your fault.
Despite being the single most educated generation in human history, Millennials are going to be poorer than their parents. It’s all due to long-term factors that have been decades in the making.
This is why your parents’ advice isn’t working and the high rate of unemployment isn’t necessarily your fault.
In short, there are about 80 million extra job seekers with bachelor’s degrees in America today than in 1970—and we’ll get to that in a moment.
You better believe that’s related to your difficulty getting a job. Careers don’t grow on trees anymore; you’re probably reading this because you already know that you can’t just “get a degree and then a job.”
This page is going to give you two things:
- Some hard numbers to understand why unemployment isn’t necessarily your fault as a new graduate.
- Ammunition to defend yourself when your opinionated friends, family members, bosses, or coworkers tell you that you’re “just lazy.”
- A direction to work toward getting a good job where your skills are ac useful (later on).
Here’s the thing: the skills you learned in school are highly useful—they just aren’t always enough to compete on their own for task-oriented jobs in such a flooded market. We’re going to look at the cold, hard facts of why you don’t have a job, and then you’re going to read the strategy I used to get one after nine months of unemployment.
Table of Contents
Why unemployment isn't your fault: the overview
There are more college-educated people than ever
Liberal arts degrees' market value have dropped over time
Everything costs more these days: by the numbers
Employers now skip training you to cut costs
Why unemployment isn’t your fault: the overview
It’s not your fault that the job market isn’t the same as in the 1970s and ‘80s. In 2012, 53% of American recent graduates were either unemployed or underemployed.
Is it because young people are lazy? No. Humanity didn’t just collectively decide it didn’t want to work. Several factors have come together to create a perfect storm of unemployment for today’s graduates in general. Liberal arts graduates have gotten the short end of the stick on top of that.
These factors have made it incredibly difficult to make a living:
- More people hold degrees than ever before (much more on that below).
- Everything costs more today than 30 years ago, especially education and lodging.
- Companies don’t want to train employees anymore.
- Today’s entry-level jobs often require more technical skills than 20-40 years ago.
- Traditional undergraduate programs don’t teach plug-and-play “task” skills made for entry-level jobs.
- You can’t network into a job when your entire network is competing with you.
Let’s unpack that, because it’s important that you understand the scope of the current job market.
P.S. It takes twice as long for graduates to find jobs under normal circumstances
According to Workopolis’ internal data, it takes the average person about 4 months to find a new job—and that’s for people who have been in the workforce for a number of years. The same can’t be said for recent graduates, who may need an average of 7.4 months to find a new job, according to Consumer Affairs.
Indeed’s internal data shows that recent graduates apply to 23 positions on average before landing their first job, too.
Applying to an average of 23 jobs over 7.4 months takes a long time, and these are just for entry-level jobs—contracts and part-time included. It’s not like most grads get glamorous positions with full benefits right out of school (and when they do, it’s a tech job in the Bay Area with astronomical costs of living, just an FYI).
There are more college-educated people than ever
It’s not just you; more and more people are earning bachelor’s degrees all over America (and in Canada, the UK, and so on). The growing US population alone isn’t the only factor here: the actual per cent of educated adults competing for jobs in America has grown at an alarming rate.
A little over 10% of the population aged 25 and over held a bachelor’s degree in 1970, yet a whopping 33.4% of Americans 25 and over held them in 2016. Don’t take my word for it—this comes straight from the United States Census Bureau.
From a bird’s-eye view, job market competition has more than tripled. That doesn’t account for age, which would be skewed heavily toward younger generations. It also doesn’t include adults under 25 years of age, which means that this data doesn’t include recent graduates in the first few years of their careers.
Now consider this: the United States’ population 25 and over was:
- 111,904,000 in 1970.
- 217,361,000 in 2016.
The US population aged 25 and over nearly doubled over 46 years—and the per cent of those people holding bachelor’s degrees more than tripled at the same time.
You ready for those numbers?
- 12,309,000 people over 25 held bachelor’s degrees in 1970.
- 72,598,000 people over 25 held bachelor’s degrees in 2016.
The population holding bachelor’s degrees over the age of 25 increased by 580% in 46 years. That’s nearly six times more competition in less than half a century.
This is one of the biggest reasons why you can’t find a job. You have six times the competition today than any graduate did in 1970. That’s arguably closer to three and a half times if you only count by per cent, but that’s still an incredible amount of competition that didn’t exist when your parents graduated.
Just recognize that the odds of earning gainful employment are far more difficult than in previous decades no matter your skill set or educational background. That’s where we’re all starting from as graduates these days.
Liberal arts degrees’ market value have dropped over time
Ask anyone on campus (or at your dinner table during Thanksgiving) and they’ll say that you should have gone into Computer Sciences. They’re not wrong in that it’s a lucrative field with high demand, either.
But there are two important caveats here that most people forget:
First: fields like Computer Sciences, Engineering, and Nursing are all professional programs designed to train you for a specific job or career path. They’re high-level vocational training (and no less difficult or complex). Liberal arts programs are classical education programs designed to teach general knowledge encompassing politics, history, literature, societal trends and statistics, and so on. They serve totally different purposes.
Second: Computer Science and Engineering aren’t the only STEM fields out there, and unemployment rates are high for all graduates at all points in recent history. Even STEM grads struggle to find jobs out there.
Here’s what data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York says about unemployment rates by degree.
That’s a sample of some well-known fields (it’s not exhaustive) but look at the scale of those unemployment rates. Most of them sit between 3.5% and 6%, with some outliers above and below those thresholds.
Yes, History’s unemployment rate of 4.1% is lower than Mathematics’ rate of 5.8%. It’s even lower than Computer Science’s rate of 4.7%. So you can still get a job with a liberal arts degree.
Here’s where you’re running intop trouble: liberal arts graduates have an underemployment problem. Here are the same types of degrees ranked by underemployment:
THAT is where liberal arts graduates struggle in the early days of their careers. They don’t have the entry-level skills to get a foot in the door, even though they have a ton of soft skills that employers actually love.
So even though it takes students from most programs a similar amount of time to land a job after graduation, liberal arts students get the short end of the stick on getting the right jobs.
But not everyone in the world can be programmers. Not everyone is wired that way, and even big tech companies are starting to notice. The hiring of liberal arts professionals has begun to match—and in some cases even outpace—the hiring of other professionals with a STEM background.
“The study points to estimates from LinkedIn that suggest ‘between 2010 and 2013, the growth of liberal arts majors entering the technology industry from undergrad outpaced that of computer science and engineering majors by 10 percent.’ ”
With that said, tech companies aren’t generally hiring brand-new history grads (believe me, I found out the hard way). You’ll need to close that gap with technical skills over several years of building up your experience, and the research out there comes to the same conclusion.
That data was also from 5 years ago. It’s a solid statistic, but the years being referenced are from 6-9 years ago, as of writing. Here’s the real takeaway: even crazy-successful tech companies need people with liberal arts backgrounds to bring skills outside of software development and engineering:
- Emotional intelligence for sales
- Communication and language for marketing
- Conceptual and abstract thinking for management (and project management)
- Empathy, patience, and people skills for community management and customer support
The issue isn’t that your degree is useless—it’s not. But you do need to comine it with more hands-on skills that help you get your foot in the door. Then you can start blending those industry-specific hard skills with the softer skills you’ve honed in college to begin excelling.
And we’ll get to all of that as you read through this site, but it’s a nuanced problem that you’ll need to solve by following a strategy. More on that later, too.
Everything costs more these days: by the numbers
Bad news: you still need a bachelor’s degree to make a good living wage and escape unemployment in the long run. Polls from Gallup even indicate that an education raises one’s happiness level by a significant margin.
For all that, the numbers are still clear: there are far more job seekers with bachelor’s degrees today than there were several decades ago. And they’re all paying through the nose to earn those degrees.
Here’s a comparison of how household income and tuition have grown over time.
College costs have skyrocketed and it’s cutting you off at the knees
You’ve probably been told that your generation has been handed everything for free at some point in your life. Older people see more youth going to university today than in their heyday—sometime between 1950 and 1990— and, as a result, think, “ the new generation is privileged.”
The numbers say otherwise: everything costs more than when your parents (and your opinionated uncle/boss/grandparent) graduated from college.
The Consumer Price Index (a quick snapshot of the average cost of living and buying power in America) rose by 250% from 1978 to 2015. That should give you an idea of how to measure inflation in that time period.
- College textbooks became 812% more expensive.
- Medical services became 575% more expensive.
- New home prices rose by 325%.
None of those numbers are even close to the rate of inflation, as measured by the Consumer Price Index. The point is that everything is more expensive even when compared to average consumer’s buying power after inflation.
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the cost of post-secondary tuition rose by 63% in the 10-year period between 2006 and 2016 alone.
63%. That’s insane.
Inflation doesn’t account for that kind of price hike, since it tends to rise between 1.5% and 2.5% every year. In fact, the cumulative inflation rate between 2006 and 2016 was only 19.1%—less than one-third of the average tuition increase in the same time period
You can check the US Inflation Calculation Calculator here. I’ll save you the trouble, though. Here’s a graph of how much college has cost as a per cent of the median household income in the United States over time.
Adjusted for 2017 dollars, a year of college education used to cost 20.24% of household income in 1966. Then it grew to 35.83% of household income in 2016.
Yeah, the cost of a college education just about doubled compared to the average household income.
The cost of education has risen far beyond the rate of inflation, yet a post-secondary degree has never been more sorely needed to find a job in the first place. This puts an incredible strain on your ability as a new graduate to enter competitive schools, pay down student debt, or to afford living costs in major urban centers (you know, where the jobs exist).
Higher college costs mean higher debt, and that limits your mobility
What does all of that mean? The average load of student debt increased from $10,000 in 1989 to $40,000 by 2014. If student debt stayed the same—i.e. keeping pace with inflation—then the average debt load would only cost $19,100.
Higher student debt means that you can’t afford to rent an apartment in another city for a new job, or buy a car (and insurance, and fuel, and maintenance, and winter tires) to give yourself greater mobility in the job market.
For our Canadian friends out there: your tuition costs have risen, too. A $1,000 CAD price tag for a year of tuition at York University in 1984 should only cost $2,130 CAD in 2017, yet tuition at any Ontario university stands at well over $5,000 CAD.
As the author of the linked article points out, working full-time for 12 weeks on minimum wage doesn’t even cover tuition—let alone books, residence, groceries, utilities, or abstract “service fees” that institutions love to charge these days.
There’s a disconnect between what older generations think about your living situation and the reality you’re facing. Everything they relied on costs more today than it did in the 1970s, ‘80s, ‘90s, and even the early 2000s.
Recent graduates in general don’t have the savings, buying power, or mobility to find as many jobs in 2018 as they did in 1978. That’s not any graduate’s fault, and it’s not laziness. Forces beyond the control of a 22-year old graduate are at work here.
Employers now skip training you to cut costs
This is speculation frequently thrown around in conversation. It may well be true, but it’s difficult to measure.
A 2011 survey from Accenture discovered that just 21% of US employees received formal training from their employers over the previous five years. Admittedly, that report is both dated and closer to the 2008 recession than we are today.
With that said, it raises a serious question: why aren’t employees receiving formal training from their employers? That doesn’t account for informal training, but it’s an alarming number nevertheless.
Here’s what we do know:
- The 2008 recession caused unemployment to spike.
- The job market has been flooded with about 60 million additional, educated job seekers since 1970.
- It makes more sense (short-term) to hire an employee another company paid to train than to pay the money for training yourself.
Peter Cappelli, Professor of Management and Director of Wharton’s Center for Human Resources, argues that the issue of “talent shortage” is a myth. He follows the simple argument that companies used to hire employees right out of school and train them for extended careers.
What his article in TIME Magazine didn’t cover is the fraying social contract. The lack of formal training processes isn’t really a new trend—just ask Liz Ryan, CEO of the Human Workplace:
“Pundits predicted the fraying of the so-called social contract thirty years ago when I was a baby HR person. It was all we heard about back then – how long-term employment was going away – but the shift took some time to make its presence known. Now we understand what the pundits were talking about. We see the erosion of long-term, full-time employment happening to us and around us.”
It’s difficult to quantify, but the expert testimony is clear: the reluctance to train employees is a widespread attitude.
That attitude is rooted in the belief that companies will save money by poaching qualified employees trained by their competitors instead of training employees who might leave for a pay raise elsewhere.
The joke is that if those companies don’t train anybody, then everybody ends up with unqualified employees. And they do—but that’s a separate discussion.
Unfortunately, the oversaturated market means that companies can afford to be picky. Technological convenience has exacerbated this attitude. You’ve probably been forced to shoe-horn your resume into a corporate application more than once—maybe even on a daily basis if you’re actively hunting for jobs.
It’s a terrible way to seek talent because it drives away good people whose lives don’t fit into a two-page resume, but it’s easy from the employer’s perspective. And they don’t have to worry about training people to stay competitive until the job market thins out.
What can you do? Know your degree’s market worth and follow this road map.
So you have 6 times the amount of educated people competing for jobs where employers favour candidates that need less training.
Fantastic. What now?
- Pick and (prioritize) 3 jobs you want.
- Rewrite your resume and LinkedIn profile.
- Build a portfolio website.
- Build up your portfolio (and testimonials).
To borrow a concept from the enlightened Mark Manson: the awful job market isn’t your fault, but finding a job is your responsibility. Follow the steps on this website to set yourself apart from the tens of thousands of other job-seekers out there just like you.
Arm yourself with knowledge and a plan.