No job, no house, no kids: Welcome to the millennials

Brian Alunan has nothing to show for the 150 applications he has submitted to Sacramento area employers over the last few months. No bites, no interviews, no job.

Alunan is 29, and lives with his parents. His work history is spotty. His unemployment benefits have ended. The bank is about to take his car.

Alunan is a “millennial,” one of 700,000 residents in the Sacramento region born between the early 1980s and early 2000s.

“The economy, they say it’s recovering,” said Alunan. “But I don’t know what it takes to get work these days. Give me a chance. Give me a call, interview me.”

If every generation is supposed to be better off financially than the one that preceded it, Sacramento “millennials” have a lot of catching up to do.

The region’s millennials are more likely to be unemployed as young adults and live in their childhood home than their parents and grandparents were at the same age, according to a review of census data.

And millennials between the ages of 18 and 31 are less likely than previous generations were, in that age range, to earn more than $40,000 annually, own a house, be married or have children.

Several experts said the economy is the primary culprit. Many millennials graduated from high school or college during the Great Recession and had trouble finding work. Others were just getting started as professionals and were the first laid off during the economic downturn.

Almost 20 percent of millennials ages 18 to 31 in the Sacramento region were unemployed in 2012, according to the latest census data. Nationwide, the unemployment rate among millennials in that age group was about 14 percent in 2012.

By comparison, the parents of millennials, popularly known as Generation X and born between the early 1960s and early 1980s, did much better when they were young adults. In the Sacramento region, their unemployment rate in 1990 was 8 percent.

And for the grandparents of millennials, the “Baby Boomers” born between the early 1940s and early 1960s, the unemployment rate among young adults in 1970 was about 9 percent.

“People of this generation are faced with the vivid reality that they may not do as well as their parents did,” said Vicki Smith, professor of sociology at UC Davis. “They were raised with the expectation that they could do anything they wanted, that they should do what they love. It causes confusion for them.”

Beyond the economy, a popular Internet trope these days is to blame millennials for their situation. Millennials, this theory goes, are restless, spoiled and expect the world to lie gently at their feet.

Alec Levenson, a senior research scientist at the University of Southern California who has written extensively about generational impact on work and earnings, said such arguments are predictable – and wrong. Every generation, in its youth, is derided by those who came before, he said. The millennials just happened to come of age during a bust, and a lot of them busted.

“This has absolutely no association with people’s approach to work,” he said. “It’s just being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Many millennials are stuck because employers look at their work history and aren’t willing to take a chance, Levenson said. Employers can’t immediately tell from an application whether candidates who are unemployed lost their jobs due to the economy or because they were lousy workers. So they tend to pick people without employment gaps, he said.

As time passes, the problem magnifies. Employers start to wonder why applicants haven’t been able to find work: Is something wrong with them?

‘Looking for anything’

Malia Van Parys, 29, has been asking herself the same sort of question lately.

After graduating from Rocklin High in 2004, Van Parys held a series of customer service jobs in or near Roseville with few employment gaps for several years. But she lost her last job during the recession.

Since then, she has been unemployed. She’s on the verge, she said, of living in her car because she can’t afford rent. The title of her latest online job posting reflects that frustration: “Just hire me already. I’m a hard worker!!!” it reads.

“It has been extremely hard to find another (job),” she said. “I am not working anywhere now, but am desperately looking for anything.”

Van Payrs does not have a college degree. That puts her in an especially tough position in this tough environment. She competes for work with older adults who have more experience, and with other millennials who have a college education but can’t find anything better paying than customer service jobs.

The lack of work for young millennials without a four-year degree is one of the hallmarks of this era. About one in four Sacramento millennials with no college experience were unemployed in 2012, double the rate for their parents and grandparents when they were the same age, census figures show.

“I think they had it much easier,” Van Parys said. “Nowadays, you need to go through three to five years of school.”

Millennials in general are a well-educated lot, especially compared with their grandparents and great-grandparents. But even many millennials with a college degree are “underemployed,” working jobs that don’t take advantage of their schooling.

Take cashiers, entry-level workers who historically have not needed a lot of formal education. Today, the young adult who takes your cash at the gas station or the store probably has been to college. About two-thirds of the 24,000 millennials in Sacramento working as cashiers have some college education, census figures show.

For millennials who do find work, getting the hours needed to stay afloat can be challenging. About 30 percent of employed millennials worked part-time in 2012, almost double the rate for Gen Xers at the same age.

Rachael Smith, 22, has spent months looking for full-time work to augment her salary as a barista in a Roseville coffee shop. Smith applied online for 16 jobs in the last month. She went to seven other places to apply in person. She had two interviews – but no dice.

“I have applied at just about everywhere in the mall – fountains, fast food,” she said, adding that her problems are compounded by having a theft arrest in her background. “I would love to work in a restaurant environment, but the places I’ve gone into have turned me down for lack of experience.”

In prior generations, many young job applicants could point to their military service as proof that they were disciplined and educated. Millennials, though, are less likely to be veterans than prior generations, particularly compared with their grandparents and great-grandparents, census figures show.

Joshua Simpson, 24, is proud of his service in the Marine Corps and expected it to impress employers. But he soon got the impression, he said, that employers value a college degree more than on-the-job training in the military.

Simpson said he applied for more than 50 jobs in the Sacramento region and spent weeks searching for work before recently landing a position at a computer networking company. Only when he got face time with a prospective employer – no easy feat in this day of online applications – was he able to detail his military training and show what he could do.

“There’s so many people out of work – it’s hard to get in front of someone,” he said.

‘More than just money’

As with any generation, it’s impossible to fit every millennial into a tidy box. Many young adults in Sacramento have fulfilling and well-paying jobs.

Karlee Cemo, 26, grew up in Sacramento and came back to the city after earning a degree from San Diego State in 2010. She lived with her parents for several months while she saved money and worked an entry-level job at a marketing company. Today, she’s in a stable, well-paying marketing position at a Sacramento law firm.

Cemo spent much of the last few years networking with potential employers, building relationships that will help her move up. She uses social media to “build a personal brand.”

“We have a much tougher situation than probably our parents before us,” Cemo said. “You have to be savvy.”

And not having a lucrative job in some cases is a matter of choice.

Emilie Cameron, 32, also works as a marketing professional in downtown Sacramento. She said many millennials have a different definition of success than their parents and grandparents did as young adults. Millennials are willing to take risks and move from job to job, she said, as they search for something that fits. That may hurt their finances, but it keeps them motivated.

“I think it will be very rare to see someone with a company or employer their whole life,” she said. “It’s that startup culture. There’s more than just money; there’s general happiness.”

Suzanne O’Keefe, an economist and professor at Sacramento State, said that, as the economy rebounds, she believes more of the region’s millennials will find success. It’s likely, she said, that millennials are already a little better off than the 2012 census figures suggest.

The struggle for college-educated workers “has been moving from the job they had while in college to more permanent employment that uses their college skills,” she said. “It’s getting a little better. But it’s a challenge.”

Levenson, the USC researcher, is more pessimistic, citing studies that show that people who enter the workforce for the first time during a recession tend to earn less over their lives than those who start working during better times. He said the employment gaps millennials suffer through today likely will be held against them for years to come.

“History is not destiny, but it makes it a lot harder,” he said.

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