I first voted in a presidential election in 1992. I was a sophomore in college, and while the country was coming out of a recession, the time was far from angst ridden for those of us in our late teens and early 20s.
By the time we graduated a few years later, the first commercial web browser had been released, ushering in a global knowledge economy powered by rapid advances in technology. We were perhaps among the last of the college graduating classes that had a transition to career that was simple and fairly linear. Industries familiar to our parents and their steady career paths still existed, and we didn’t really worry about those opportunities totally disappearing by the time we returned to campus for reunions years later.
Around the same time, a psychology professor at the University of Missouri, Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, was interviewing young people around the country and started noticing a trend. They didn’t quite fit the definition of kids nor did they feel like adults. In 2000, he coined a new term for the period between the ages of 18 and 25: “emerging adulthood.”
Arnett is now at Clark University, and for the past several years has been conducting extensive surveys of emerging adults. And while his polling has found high levels of optimism about the future among them, the survey results also have exposed worrisome signs of anxiousness about paying for college, landing a job, and finding a career.
I met many of these emerging adults during the past two years interviewing them for my forthcoming book, There is Life After College. What I found were many struggling 20-somethings who had followed what they were told were the rules to a solid job and career — ace college-prep classes in high school, do well on the SAT, get into a good college, and graduate with a bachelor’s degree.
But now many of them were holding newly minted college degrees that were landing them jobs fit for those with just a high-school diploma. Nearly 50 percent of recent college graduates are under-employed, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, meaning they hold jobs that don’t require a bachelor’s degree.
Many struggle to find jobs after graduation, so they take anything that’s available thinking it will be a short-term gig. But then they suddenly turn around and they are a 25-year-old secretary, barista, or nanny — all jobs recent college graduates I met were holding — and competing with a new crop of college seniors for the jobs that are available.
For many emerging adults, their struggles begin in college. Financial concerns rate second only to academics as a major stress point for college students. One third of college students report finances being traumatic or very difficult to handle, according to the 2015 American College Health Association survey. When I graduated from college, only about 20 percent of 20-somethings had student debt. Today, nearly half do.
This is why the economic message of Bernie Sanders — free college, universal health care, and his rally against Wall Street — is resonating so much among emerging adults. While their grandparents, and maybe even their parents (groups largely breaking more for Hillary Clinton) had maps with clearly marked trails for their careers, emerging adults need a navigational chart to figure out the wide-open seas of their next 30-plus years.
Sanders and others like to blame the struggles of 20-somethings on the economy, but it is likely more a result of a longer-term shift in the global workforce that is having an outsized impact on people in their 20s who have little work experience.
A widely cited report by three economists in 2014 found that “having a B.A. is less about obtaining access to high-paying managerial and technology jobs and more about beating out less-educated workers for the barista and clerical jobs.”
That study also found demand for college-educated knowledge workers has slowed as the tech revolution has matured. It suggested that this situation may be the new normal — where a bachelor’s degree is needed to get any job, not just a high-skilled, high-wage job.
Today’s Millennials make up slightly more than a third of eligible voters this year. Given their unique economic anxiety about the future, they could be a potent force if they show up to vote.