Millennials keep their chins up despite high unemployment in economic downturn

Facing high unemployment, millennials draw resilience from flexible goals, tech savvy, and parental cushions. Will these supports help them emerge strong from the economic downturn?

By , / staff writer

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    Tim Malcolm, at his father’s house in New Hampshire, worked in construction as a project manager
    after earning his degree in architecture. Laid off last summer and facing high unemployment, he set out to do volunteer work – in all 50 states.
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It's been more than 50 years since such a large share of America's young people – 37 percent, by one study – were out of work.

But even as the most severe economic downturn since the Great Depression played havoc with their career plans, the so-called Millennial Generation (ages 18 to 29) is coming of age with their characteristic "help save the world" optimism largely undimmed. So far, at least, hard times and rampant unemployment have not left the same searing mark on today's young adults that some previous recessions did on the young people of their day.

"Their response to hard times is to band together and fix the institutions that have failed them," says Morley Winograd, author of books and studies on the Millennial Generation. "They approach the problem with optimism and a can-do attitude, unlike the way other generations might react to the same experience when they were young."

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There are a number of reasons for the chin-up stance.

For one, the recession, while the deepest since the Great Depression, is not dragging on so long that all hope of finding a good job has evaporated. For another, there's a decent government safety net now, in the form of food stamps and unemployment benefits. Millennials, moreover, seem destined to become the most educated generation ever and see themselves as having a lot on the ball. And let's not forget the soft landing provided by parents, widely considered the most overprotective, don't-cut-the-apron-strings cohort of parents in US history.

The experience of 20-something Kevin Henneberger, who graduated in December from Texas A&M University, is a case in point. He and his wife are both looking for work and have considered many options.

"My wife and I would be open to volunteering, or ultimately taking a job out of our fields," says Mr. Henneberger during an interview in Boston, where he is looking for work. "But I'm confident that there's some job out there in the Web communications industry that I could do. I've just got to snag something. And ... right now I'm ... still pumped to get into my field, so I just have to channel that energy."

To save money, the couple has moved to her parents' home in California while they try to crack into the job market.

That parental cushion wasn't so available to earlier generations of young people – and it wasn't something that many from the preceding Generation X looked to when the dotcom bubble burst and unemployment socked them in 2000. But 13 percent of parents with grown children recently reported that an adult son or daughter had moved home in the past year, says a Pew Research Center survey. Of those, 2 in 10 were full-time students and one-quarter were unemployed. About one-third had lived on their own before returning home.

Of course, if young people are sidelined in the workforce for a long time, it hurts both them and the nation as a whole. Shaped in the early '90s by Disney videos, cellphones, and the Internet, they are often characterized as collaborative, creative, tech-smart, and idealistic, in an "impact the world" sense, say those who research attitudes of Millennials.

Though jobs are still scarce, un-employed young adults tend to see possibilities rather than liabilities, says Mr. Winograd, citing coping strategies for the 18-to-29 set.

Hey, it's a great time to go to grad school. Last year, more than 675,000 people registered for the GRE tests, a whopping 9 percent increase from 2008, the Educational Testing Service reported.

Another internship? Why not. Half the class of 2008 had been an intern at some time in their college careers, and the share had ticked up to 52 percent by 2009, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

With these Web skills, how can we lose? Some Millennials are branching out to become online entrepreneurs, in effect creating their own jobs using their tech savvy.

Volunteering will help others and pay off in the long run. About 8.24 million young people ages 16 to 24 volunteered in 2008, at least 441,000 more than in 2007, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service. The Peace Corps got 15,386 applicants in fiscal year 2009, an 18 percent jump. Applications for Americorps, the teaching program that generally attracts students just out of high school and college, tripled from 2008 to 2009, says Ashley Etienne of the Corporation for National and Community Service.

Members of this generation are less likely to take just any job than are others out of work, says Neil Howe, author of a series of books on Millennials. "They're more likely to take an unpaid internship, classes, or do free consulting – something that advances their goals," he says.

That's true for Henneberger, who has been doing freelance website work free of charge to boost his résumé while he searches for work. He looks at this as more opportunity for self-improvement, he says, and has used his time to learn how to use new software.

It's true, too, for Tim Malcolm of Hampstead, N.H. With his degree in architecture, Mr. Malcolm worked as a project manager at a construction firm in New England. But by last summer, things were so slow he was laid off.

After volunteering locally, Malcolm and his girlfriend, also a 20-something, combined their desire to make a difference and their love of travel by donating their time in 50 states in 50 days, blogging about it along the way. They say they wanted to inspire people to volunteer more, even in a down economy. He calls this period in his life a "gift of time and the freedom to do whatever I was passionate about" and to "act as a productive member of society.

Malcolm recently finished the trip, living off savings and donations, and returned to New England. He's at his dad's house while he gears up for a job search. But Malcolm is fairly hopeful. He's received positive feedback about his volunteer journey.

"If you present it in the right way, the experience can open a lot of doors," he says. "I know job offers are not going to pop up tomorrow. But I see a lot of opportunity."

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