Image: Christine Chase
Robert Galbraith  /  Reuters
Christine Chase, 24, searches for a job on her computer in her apartment in Campbell, Calif. Chase was laid off from her contractor job at AT&T in the Silicon Valley in August.
By Eve Tahmincioglu
msnbc.com contributor
updated 1/16/2009 11:47:41 AM ET 2009-01-16T16:47:41

The land of milk and honey is souring for Generation Y, just as its members get their careers into full swing.

With the unemployment rate skyrocketing, employees under 30 have the most reason for worry. Joblessness is far higher among younger people than for those later in their careers.

For workers under 29, the unemployment rate jumped to more than 11 percent in December, compared with under 9 percent a year ago, according to Labor Department figures. That is far worse than the overall rate of 7.2 percent, up from 4.9 percent a year ago. The rate for teenage workers, from 16-19, is far worse -- approaching 20 percent. For workers in their 30s and older, the rate is still under 7 percent, and generally declines as workers get older.

The staggering jobless numbers for twentysomething workers are no surprise to Lindsey Rhein, 24, of Placentia, Calif.

She’s been out of work for nearly four months after getting laid off as a legal assistant for a construction company.  She’s applied to over 700 jobs and has gotten only seven interviews, leading nowhere.

Even with a master’s degree in forensic psychology and a bachelor’s in sociology, she hasn’t been able to land a sales associate job at Target, and she can’t even get a call back from McDonald's, where she applied for the fast food chain’s management training program two months ago.

The experience has shocked Rhein.

“We were told it was our generation's time to shine, that we could achieve our dreams plus more,” she says. “When I was laid off I thought finding another job was going to be cake.”

At a time when the nation is struggling with one of the worst economic downturns since the Great Depression, Gen Yers like Rhein are facing a rude, job-hunting awakening. They often have to stand in line behind their more senior counterparts as any companies lucky enough to be hiring take their choice of more seasoned job applicants.

So baby boomers rushing to get Botox or dress hipper in order to compete in a tough job market may want to reconsider.

Older workers seem to have a leg up on the youngsters. It’s a harsh reality that happens in almost any downturn, economists and labor experts say, but this one has been particularly hard on younger workers because many were blindsided.

“Recessions almost always have the same consequences — experience pays off,” says Edward Stuart, economics professor at Northeastern Illinois University.

Breaking down job numbersGiven that this is a “macro-economic recession,” he adds, the job losses have been widespread, across almost all industry groups, making it even harder on younger workers, most of which have never experienced a severe economic downturn. “New entrants into the labor force tend to be younger people, and companies don’t want to hire them now.”

Another factor keeping the jobless rate high among younger workers may be their  unwillingness to accept any job that’s offered, says Todd Steen, professor of economics at Hope College in Holland, Mich.

“When you’re younger you’re willing to look a little more, maybe move around or live with parents,” he says. “If you’re 50 with a mortgage, you’ll do anything to work hard.”

Indeed, James Anderson, 29, says, “I could have had a job by now if I lowered my expectations on salary and the job.”

Anderson, who earned a degree in electrical engineering from the University of Michigan in 2007, was laid off in October from his contract position at General Motors’ research and development center in Detroit. After a fruitless job search in the area he has decided to move to Boston to live with his sister because he believes there are more job opportunities in the Northeast.

He’s not happy to be moving away from where he grew up, but he hopes the move will lead to his goal of getting a job in the computer industry.

“A lot of people are taking a little less,” he explains. “I’m not ready to concede.”

Some career experts believe it’s that kind of mentality that hurts many Gen Yers because they aren’t willing to start small and pay their dues.

“This is the most educated generation, and they were told, "You're special,’ ” notes workplace consultant J.T. O'Donnell. “Well … they’re not special, and they end up going out into the professional world and finding this out.”

She points out that many of Gen Y folks didn’t work as teenagers or during college, and that makes them ill-prepared for the realities of the work world.

“Moreover, by the standards of the older generations who currently hold most management jobs, Gen Y is also viewed as woefully unprepared to jump in and work effectively in a professional setting,” she adds. “As a result, many employers don't feel they have time, energy or money to bring Gen Y workers up to speed — especially when studies show Gen Ys job-hop every 18 months.”

Lyndsay Rush of Chicago admits she was being a bit cocky when she left her job with a stock brokerage firm in July without having another gig lined up.

“I figured I was 25 and it was time to make a career change, so I took the leap. I wanted to go into marketing or writing,” she recalls. “There was some overconfidence there.”

She has been unable to find a job in those fields and so has accepted temporary positions.  In the past three months, she has applied to 80 jobs, including ones that were not directly related to her future career goals.

“I was under the assumption that we were at the age that everyone wanted to hire,” she says.

To release some of her job-hunting frustration, she has launched “Bob Loblaw’s Job Blog,” based on a character in the show "Arrested Development character," about the misadventures of the jobless.

Younger workers are finding out the hard way that they have to hustle to land their dream job, says Debra Condren, business psychologist and author of “Ambition Is Not A Dirty Word.”

“These young adults don’t know how to jump in and be aggressive,” she says.

“A lot of us parents wanted our kids to focus more on school, not part-time jobs,” she notes. “Then they went to college, and we helped them out financially. And there are also the super crazy parents, the ones that go on job interviews with them.”

She believes the recession will light a fire under the Gen Y crowd as they go head-to-head with older workers. They’re going to have to pound the pavement, take less money, work their way up the ladder, she advises, just like the generations before them. But the future is uncertain for all age groups in the this deep recession, which has caught even well-seasoned professionals by surprise.

“Imagine if you were a young person who’s never lived through a downturn,” she says.

Rhein, the legal assistant, certainly was not prepared.

“Growing up, my parents were telling me, ‘The world is at your fingertips. All you have to do is educate yourself, go to college, and you’d get a prime position right out of school.’ They were wrong.”

Eve Tahmincioglu writes the weekly "Your Career" column for msnbc.com and chronicles workplace issues in her blog, CareerDiva.net.

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