Brett Patterson wasn't exactly a slacker.
He doubled up on courses his junior year in high school and took summer classes, graduated early and started college at San Diego State University when he was only 16. Four years later he graduated with a degree in English and started looking for work in marketing and communications. It was spring of 2008.
A few months later, the country had spiralled into economic meltdown and Patterson couldn't find work for more than $9 an hour. He moved in with his mom in Texas and found a job managing an American Apparel retail store. At the age of 20, he couldn't help but feel like he wasn't much further ahead than when he had started college four years earlier.
Over the course of the last decade, the employment rate for young adults, especially those in their teens and early 20s, has fallen from 44 percent to 24 percent, according to a new Brookings study. That's the lowest it's been since 1948.
The study also found that for the first time employment rates actually went up for workers over 55 as retirement-age workers who lost money in the recession are forced to stay in the workforce longer than planned.
Researchers call this the “Age Twist” — the twin misfortunes of the old and young in the post-recession economy, where 20-somethings are stuck in mom and dad's basement and aging workers are bagging groceries. America's oldest and youngest workers are having to find ways to re-imagine their career paths.
Young and jobless
Patterson looked for work for 2 1/2 years from graduation before he was able to find work that paid more than $12 an hour. He was relieved to land a job as a college recruiter for an online university, but a couple years later it downsized and he was laid off. He found himself in the job search again. During this time he took unpaid internships, contract work and tutoring work — anything to pay bills and build his resume: “I have had more four-month jobs than I can remember,” says Patterson.
This kind of scattered work history can have long-term effects. Young adults who are unemployed don't just suffer while they're surfing Monster.com and filling out applications at Starbucks. Being young and jobless means that you are also likely to face recurring unemployment, and earn less later. Early unemployment equates to a loss of about $22,000 over the life of a career, according to the Center for American Progress.
“It’s not written in stone, and it’s not your destiny,” Martha Ross, a Brookings fellow who co-authored the paper told the The Washington Post. “But this is a really formative period in someone’s life.”
The Age Twist
While younger workers are scrambling for work those at or close to retirement are clinging to it. Lots of retirement-age workers are staying on the job due to loss of funds in the recession or the collapse of the housing market when many of them counted on the worth of their homes in order to retire, the report says.
It used to be that the employment rate for teens was double that of retirement-age workers, but no more. By 2012, the unemployment rate for teens and workers 65 and over was the same. Aging workers often find themselves in jobs they are overqualified for or stuck in jobs that they can't leave.
Lea Cullen Boyer optimistically bought a new home in the Woodstock, N.Y., area around the beginning of the crash with the idea that she could eventually retire there. She thought that she would be able to find work locally, but a shrinking economy meant that she commuted four hours a day for four years to her job in Westchester, N.Y., where she worked as a sustainability consultant.
“What was once a nice stable job became dead end and lackluster,” says Boyer. “But lack of opportunities kept me there.”
Creative solutions and opportunities
Boyer finally left her job working for the government and started her own venture from home. She used her 21 years of experience in sustainability and recycling for the city of Westchester to launch greengurunetwork.com, a networking site for green enterprises — recycling, solar, local food — in the Hudson Valley.
She is 53 and thinking about her retirement, but she says many of her peers are thinking differently about retirement now.
“Some people I’ve been working with have no desire to drink juice on the edge of a pool and have people wait on them,” she said. “We want to continue to have purpose. One of the hardest thing about the downturn was less work and less sense of purpose. That was harder than the financial part.”
She and her husband work from home now, and rent out the top floor of their two-family home on Airbnb.com as part of their retirement plan.
Patterson, who is now happily employed full time as a communications consultant for a small firm that serves local nonprofits, says he also had to re-imagine his career path as a young worker.
“My parents have always had the same job — my dad was always a marine, my mom was always a nurse. That model doesn't exist anymore,” he says.
He scoured blogs, social media and dozens of job sites during his job search, and realized that lots of small businesses and self-employed people figured things out for themselves. He packaged the graphic design work, photography and music videos he'd made on the side and started calling himself a “digital content provider.” He added that to his resume, created a Tumblr account to send to employers and finally landed a job he wanted.
His advice is to stay positive and think about unique skills that make a person valuable. He jokes that maybe the problem with his generation is that they all think they can “get rich on YouTube sitting in their living rooms.”
But maybe that's not so wrong-headed afterall — maybe the technologies available to him and his peers are part of the solution to pulling them out of a dismal job market.
“Develop a niche for yourself,” says Patterson, “but just as important, know how to promote it.”