Unemployed, not discouraged: Explaining optimism among young workers

A recently-released Pew Research Poll paints an employment situation among young workers that is both highly expected and somewhat surprising. The expected part is that younger employees have suffered disproportionately from the Recession, with unemployment figures that surpass all other age groups and an employment rate within the demographic that is lower than at any time since 1948.

The surprising part? Despite clear signs that the Recession has taken a significant toll on the younger worker, people in their twenties reported being highly optimistic about their economic prospects. A full 88 percent of those surveyed said that they expected to earn enough someday to live comfortably. This is a staggering display of optimism, especially when considering that only 28 percent of people over the age of 35 gave the same answer.

How can this discrepancy be explained? How can we account for both the widespread optimism and considerable unemployment that afflicts today’s young workers?

A New York Times survey can help answer these questions. Conducted late last year, the survey asks people to rate how they feel about their personal financial situation on a general scale from “Bad” to “Good.” The survey also requested that respondents give a few sentences to explain the reasoning behind their answer. On a basic level, the New York Times survey mirrored the Pew Research poll in confirming a relative sense of optimism among adults in their twenties.

More specifically, an analysis of the individual responses paints a picture that gives a rationale to this sense of optimism. Here are some of the main trends that emerged:

Younger workers are more content to be underemployed

Since a minority of young workers will equate their current jobs with their expected careers, many are willing to take a position for which they are overqualified so long as that position can pay the bills, allow for them to accrue some savings, and leave them open to future opportunities down the road. Underemployed younger workers are happy just to have a job.

Younger workers are forward-looking

In the survey, numerous Baby Boomer workers expressed pessimism about their future because they’ve seen their industry change for the worse over the past decade. A lack of age and experience saves younger workers from this backwards-looking pessimism. Instead, they look forward – to the job growth they envision in the next ten years, the possibilities they believe their degree holds, and to the time when the Recession’s impact inevitably comes to an end.

Younger workers are more self-focused

While older Americans with good incomes and stable jobs said that they were nevertheless upset about the economy as a whole, younger workers tended to be more concerned about their personal success. If they had a good job and a promising career, the younger worker was likely to express optimism despite the problems posed by the economy around him. Younger workers are also more generally confident in the future strength of the industry in which they work.

These trends can help us begin to explain the discrepancy between high optimism and high unemployment among workers in their twenties. Viewed through a more long-term lens, this optimism has some validity. The Recession will end before young workers get too settled into their current jobs. While those in their fifties and sixties may not be able to forge new careers in the post-Recession economy, younger workers have the flexibility and the skills to adapt when the time comes. In 20 years, after all, one will simply have to conduct a white pages search at Anywho.com to realize that today’s young and unemployed generation will become tomorrow’s most successful one. But with jobs still scarce, optimism will have to carry the day for now.

Sam Peters I currently live in beautiful San Diego, California but just recently returned state-side after spending several years living in Argentina and Mexico. Instead of following the "traditional educational path" I did my undergraduate and graduate studies abroad, which was a fabulous experience. Now that I returned to the U.S, I am looking to share my insight and voice regarding education and career development.

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