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Underemployment in the Lesser Depression

at 10:28 AM ET, 10/10/2011

A lot of the posts on ‘We Are the 99 Percent’ dwell on the problem of student loans. In fact, according to this textual analysis by Mike Konczal, student loans are the leading concern on the Web site. But “college graduates’ problems should be kept in perspective,” writes Josh Barro. “The unemployment rate for people with bachelor’s degrees or higher is 4.3 percent.” Here’s a graph:


(Jess Jiang/NPR)

College graduates have certainly had an easier time of it than, say, high school graduates. But simply looking at the unemployment numbers can understate the damage the recession has done to college graduates. After all, even the employed can suffer.

What you see on ‘We Are the 99 Percent’ — and what I’ve heard a lot about anecdotally — is underemployment paired with debt. You spent four years in college and took out $80,000 in loans and now you’re...working retail? Or waiting tables? Or doing something else that doesn’t pay much, doesn’t require a college degree and certainly wasn’t worth racking up tens of thousands in student loans for. That is not what you expected. That is not what you were promised by your parents and teachers and mentors.

It’s not as bad as being unemployed, of course. But so what? Being unemployed isn’t as bad as being terminally ill. The fact that there are worse fates doesn’t relieve the anxiety of working at a dead-end job that’s not moving you any closer to an appealing future and certainly isn’t chipping away at the mountain of debt you amassed on society’s advice. Megan McArdle captured this nicely in a post last week. “No matter how inflated your expectations may have been,” she wrote, “it is no joke to have your confidence that you can support yourself ripped away, and replaced with the horrifying realization that you don’t really understand what the rules are. Yes, even if you have a nose ring.”

 
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