Why the “Underemployment” Crisis for 20-somethings is a myth

Almost thirty years ago, the unemployment rate in Canada was almost double what it is today (a staggering 13%). Twenty years ago, it took another spike and jumped to 12%. Today’s unemployment rate of 7.2% is, in historical terms, very good, and among the lowest it’s ever been since these statistics were first recorded by Statistics Canada back in 1966. So why are we constantly bombarded with sob stories from twenty-somethings about a bleak future, no available jobs for university graduates, and “underemployment” for that same demographic? Countless articles, blog posts, or even entire blogs are dedicated to the woes and the awkward growing pains that encompass the life of the 20-something, yet the data suggest otherwise.

The reality is, nothing has changed in a historical sense; every generation of 20-somethings has a difficult time coming to grips with the post post-secondary life, as it is not the gold-paved highway painted for them throughout their youth. The key difference in our generation is that we have what I like to call “unfiltered public communication” about our hardships, better known as a social media.

This could be your post-grad life one day. This should not be a scary thought. Embrace the challenge.
This could be your post-grad life one day. This should not be a scary thought. Embrace the challenge.

Social media and the ease of assembling a blog have catalyzed the trend of the hopeless 20-something (and in my case, catapulted the movement to try to end it). Yes, it is true that more students in North America are attending university (albeit at a higher cost) than ever before. But did we ever stop and think: the age at which students are attending university hasn’t changed, so why should the maturation process? The real value of education comes from life experience gained along the journey through a university degree, not from memorizing countless facts or rapidly writing an essay.

Life experience wise, the average 21 year old today is no different from a 21 year old back in 1983; they’re both equally as hopeless and confused about life as the other. The only notable difference overall would be the slightly inflated sense of entitlement in the former due to a higher chance of that individual being educated at a university. I would argue that a 21 year old who has spent 4 years of their post secondary life slugging it out in a minimum wage job has more intrinsic value than a university graduate of the same age.

Life experience will far outweigh education when it comes to employability; the only difference being the level of position at which you can be employed. However, I would like to point out that while the university graduate may command a better salary (and employment potential) in the long run, this would by no means make them a better employee than someone with life experience and a sensible work ethic. The education or knowledge might not be there, but the quality of their work will be evident because in my experience, most people not in school are thankful to have a job, and perform better at it.

Which leads me to the case of “underemployment”. Nothing more than a buzzword created by 21st century article writers. Why should the fact that you have a university degree dictate that you deserve a better job than someone who doesn’t? What value do you possess that they do not? After all, employability is ultimately a question of valuation. At the age of 21, do you offer more value than your competition? The answer is probably not. What many people in university seem to forget is that the times have changed: you’re not a special flower like your parents were if they went to university. We are basing our case for “underemployment” on outdated metrics. Think about it: we are “underemployed” based on what our parents’ situations were like when they were our age. Our parents’ generation had a formula for success: go to university, graduate, get a job, get a nice house with a white picket fence, have kids; rinse, repeat, retire. Unfortunately, 3 factors contributed to this “underemployment” situation we see today.

1) The baby boomer formula for success was no longer a secret. Every parent now had the idea in their head that they needed to send their kids to university to ensure that their child was destined for greatness.

2) University is a lot more accessible nowadays thanks to wide-spread student loans and lines of credit.

3) High schools started grossly inflating grades to the point that almost anyone with a pulse could be an honours student.

This is not meant to discourage those in university: clearly having achieved the academic results that you possess, you likely have a commendable academic work ethic and relatively high level of intelligence. But to think that the journey is over once you’ve graduated is a terrible assumption. Once you leave school, you are at the bottom of the barrel again, degree or no degree. You will have to work long hours, probably at a crappy job not even related to your field of study, and you’ll make enough money just to get by and tough it out for a good many years. It is during these years that you will define who you are.

The most critical period of growth and cognitive maturation is from the age of 18-27, where you become the adult you’ll be for the rest of your life. During these years, your social and professional maturation are imperative to your success and progress throughout the rest of your adult life. It is this time that you will form habits that will shape the very foundation of your being. The best part is, it is completely up to you on how this plays out.

Research has shown that the top performers in every field are not the most intelligent or the most educated; once IQ and ability reach a certain level, progressing beyond 1 standard deviation above that is not as valuable as developing good social habits and work ethic. Daniel Goleman is a pioneering author and psychologist, and his work details the importance of emotional intelligence with regards to success in the workplace, which is essentially self-reflection combined with life experience. The more you know yourself and others, and know how to apply that to work well with others, the greater your chances of success are.

Working a job like this will give you humility, life experience, and people skills necessary to land your first "real job"
Working a job like this will give you humility, life experience, and people skills necessary to land your first “real job”

Think about a time when you worked at a really crappy job. You liked the sense of being employed at first, but then you quickly felt underappreciated and hopeless in the shadows of your temperamental manager and greedy boss. How did you react? Did you fade into the background and let your work ethic fall off because it was “pointless” since you were in university and you’ll be out of that shithole in no time? Or did you accept your standing in the company and make a commitment to improve your skills and abilities? This scenario will present itself over and over again at each level of your life. It is the way that you embrace these challenges that will define your future.

If you challenge yourself to be better at your job, you will start to enjoy your job more. When you enjoy your job more, your sense of happiness improves, and not just when you’re on the clock. If you’re happier at work, you’re happier at home. When your sense of happiness improves, your job performance will as well, and your superiors will start to notice your great attitude matched with an even greater job performance. It’s only a matter of time before you advance in the company, even if it’s whatever minimal promotion you could achieve as a part-time student employee. And then the cycle begins once more at your first “real job”, but since you’ve done it before, you’re more prepared to do it all over again.

If you’ve cultivated a sound work ethic, you will likely be more open to gaining new skills or developing your existing ones. One of the trends occurring now is non-traditional education. Workshops, certifications, or schools dedicated to teaching skills such as project management, team-building, or the all important language of coding have sprung up in recent years, and their graduates are at a significant advantage because they offer more value to the company. These highly-driven people recognized that their skill set and marks provided by university didn’t factor as much as knowing their strengths and developing their out-of-classroom skills.

Every success story follows a similar path. No one is born a billionaire, or millionaire, or any successful person for that matter depending on your definition. Success is earned, not handed out. In terms of educational opportunity, we have it better today than many of our parents did back in the 80’s when they were searching for work, and better than many of our older peers did in the early 90’s. We are not a unique generation; we just have more outlets with which to complain about it.

So instead of reading every new article complaining about how bad the job market is, or how tuition fees are an injustice, or joining in with all the naysayers that they feel “underemployed” considering their “intelligence” and “education”, take a step back and remember that you’re no different from a 20-something thirty years ago. Accept that, move on, and do the shit out of every job you get.

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