The job market is still bleak for young people with only high school diplomas. Nearly half of high school graduates are still looking for full-time work, according to a new report by Rutgers University's John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development.
The national survey interviewed 544 recent high school grads from 2006 to 2011 who are not in college. Researchers say their hardship may have long-term emotional and financial consequences.
Valerie Peterson, 23, lowered her expectations a long time ago. Unable to afford college and trying to find work with just a high school diploma during the recession in Columbus, Ohio, she had no choice.
But she still has trouble getting her head around the reality of working the overnight shift at a gas station, earning an extra 50 cents over minimum wage — better than some of her old jobs at RadioShack and Wendy's, but still a long stretch from her dream to start and run a business.
"When I was 18, my dreams were what I want to become and what I want to do," Peterson says. "And now the only thing I'm looking for is to get by."
'Eking Out A Living'
The picture is equally dismal for millions of recent high school graduates, says Rutgers University professor Cliff Zukin, who co-directed the national survey.
The study found most still live with family, and only 1 in 4 have full-time jobs. Of those surveyed who graduated before the recession between 2006 and 2008, 37 percent are employed full-time. Only 16 percent of those who graduated between 2009 and 2011, the worst years of the recession, work full-time.
Zukin says it's not surprising that less than half believe they will ever achieve the American dream of doing better than their parents.
"This is a huge swath of American youth that have no economic prospects right now for doing anything better than marginally eeking out a living," Zukin says.
'Something's Got To Give'
Like most others surveyed, Neetasha Thomson, 24, of Memphis, knows she needs to go to college to get ahead, but she can't afford it.
She managed to go for just one year. Five years later, she now works 50-plus hours each week at Wal-Mart and FedEx to pay down that debt. Thompson applied for aid last year to go back to college again, but she found it still too expensive. But she is saving and planning to try again.
"This is not what I want to be. This is not the life I want," Thompson says. "I mean, point blank, I don't want to be just wasting my life, working these two jobs. Something's got to give. Something's got to change."
But Thompson, like the majority of those surveyed, believes it will take many years before she is financially stable enough to think about the big life milestones, like buying a home or starting a family.
Over the long term, Zukin says, this generation will likely be "permanently depressed," emotionally and economically. These recent high school graduates may never earn as much money as "people who came before them or people who came after them," he predicts.
Zukin was also struck by the number of young people who said the most important thing they were looking for in a job was job security. At 24 years old, he says, you don't say that unless you've been scarred.