A new survey of college graduates from the last five years finds that the Great Recession has hit them hard, forcing them into low-paying jobs often unrelated to their educations and leaving half of them expecting less financial success than their parents.
Don't blame a spoiled generation, says Cliff Zukin, a Rutgers University political science and public policy professor who was co-author of the study.
"Eighty-three percent of them worked when they were in college," he said. "They're making sacrifices to go through with this and they're coming out without a great job and with debt. That's not a great situation."
What's so disheartening for Zukin is that only about one-fourth of U.S. adults are graduates of four-year colleges. If the most educated are facing such difficulties, it shows just how sluggish the labor market was during the recession — and remains now. Zukin has previously studied unemployed older workers, many of whom are giving up on ever finding meaningful work again. Put it together, and it gives a dismal view of a broad span of the workforce.
The median starting salary for those who graduated between 2006 and 2008 was $30,000. For the 2009 and 2010 grads, it dipped to $27,000. And women graduates continued to make less than men.
Zukin said that with future salaries dependent on the initial one, it could mean the recent grads will have lower earnings throughout their careers.
Nearly half the graduates say they're working at jobs that don't require a college education. And many of those who left those first jobs didn't find a better situation.
Seven in 10 said their educational background had some relationship to their first job. But for those who are now working elsewhere, only about 6 in 10 say their work is in the field they studied.
In other words, not all computer science graduates are going from baristas to programmers. Many are going to jobs at other coffee shops.
And graduates are reliant on their parents financially.
Nearly half say they're subsidized in some way by their parents or other family members, including more than 1 in 5 who live with relatives.
While 85 percent have health insurance coverage, only half have it through work. Nearly one-fourth are covered by a relative's plan.
Alex Shephard, 23, graduated from Ohio's Oberlin College two years ago with a degree in English. He hasn't had what he calls a real job since then.
He used money he made as a camp counselor the first summer after graduation to spend the fall with his girlfriend, who was on a fellowship in Berlin.
"I remember part of the thinking behind that thinking was that when I come back, then the recession will be over," he said.
After returning to the U.S., he still couldn't find a full-time job. The Elmira, N.Y., native crashed with friends in Buffalo and looked futilely for work there. Then, he borrowed money from his parents to move to Philadelphia for a year, where he sometimes found freelance work like editing technical manuals for companies.
He's now living in New York City, babysitting, tending to a literary website he and other underemployed friends founded and doing some freelance writing and editing. Over two years, he's applied for scores of jobs and landed only a few interviews.
His highest monthly earnings have totaled around $3,000, but he has experienced more months in which only a few hundred dollars has trickled in. He's now on his parents' health insurance, but there was a stretch when he lacked any coverage.
"I'm still optimistic about my employability," Shephard said. "Despite all evidence to the contrary."
But Shephard is not optimistic that he'll make the kind of money his father, a history professor, has made.
The Rutgers poll finds that he's not alone in having a dreary financial outlook.
The nation's hope — most often delivered, historically — is that each generation does better than the last.
That optimism isn't there for the recent graduates.
About half say they personally don't expect to do as well as their parents. And 56 percent say their generation won't do as well as their parents' generation.
The poll was conducted March 15-April 5 by Knowledge Networks for the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers, in New Brunswick, N.J. Knowledge Networks used traditional telephone and mail sampling methods to randomly recruit respondents. People selected who had no Internet access were given it for free. The nationwide study polled 571 people in their 20s who graduated from of public and private four-year colleges between 2006 and 2010. The sampling error is plus or minus 4 percentage points.