“Emily, would you please put a bowl of water on the floor so I can drink like a dog?”
It was a sweet and funny request, and I was happy to do it. But it was also a reminder, once again, that I work for a 4-year-old.
You’ve probably heard about the vast array of problems facing my generation as we graduate and attempt to enter the job market. As a 24-year-old recent college grad, I can tell you that what you’ve been hearing is true.
I graduated last May with unpaid internships waiting for me in Mexico, Spain and Nicaragua. Even more exciting, my research proposal had been accepted, and I was all set to go to Namibia for three months of studying baby baboons. I had a passable GPA, a kick-ass resume and a nagging worry that all was for naught.
“To study the social and behavioral sciences is a labor of love,” my professor told our graduating class, “because you aren’t in it for the money!”
And sure enough, after an incredibly frustrating and depressing series of failed attempts to find funding for my research projects, watching my would-be departure dates slip by one at a time, I finally took a job as a nanny.
Don’t get me wrong: I love the little girls I care for beyond reason, and I learn things from them every day. It’s just that this wasn’t what I envisioned for myself as I slogged through 18 years of school.
I’d probably feel worse except that I have so many friends and acquaintances in the same boat. I know a psychology graduate working at Home Depot and a business grad who is a receptionist in a hotel. Several of my fellow anthropology grads work for a catering company.
According to the Pew Research Center, I am part of the first generation since the Depression to have higher levels of poverty and unemployment than the previous generation at the same age. More than a quarter of us still live with our parents, and only 30% think of our current jobs as careers. And yet, we are the best-educated generation in American history.
My best friend, Annie, fantasized throughout college about going to law school and becoming the next Wendy Davis. But after reading the statistics on how many law school graduates don’t find work in the field, the thought of borrowing another $150,000 to pursue a law degree seemed daunting. She landed an unpaid internship at Planned Parenthood, which she liked a lot, but she recently had to quit to make more time for her job that actually pays (marginally) as a preschool teacher.
It used to be that a “day job” was something artists, musicians and writers did while working on their creative projects and waiting for their breaks. Now most of my friends have day jobs. We work to pay the bills but also to support volunteering at things we hope will lead to more satisfying work in the long run.
But even good day jobs are harder to land than they used to be. When I was in high school, I worked at Trader Joe’s. The pay was good, they treated me well and there was plenty of room for promotions and raises. I came home every day happy and tired. Because I hated school, this led to many arguments with my parents about why I needed to do my homework.
“I love Trader Joe’s!” I told them. “I don’t need school. I can just work there forever!”
“You will get bored with Trader Joe’s,” they insisted. “And then what?”
This is how they explained it: If you go to college, you can do whatever you want with your life. You can work at Trader Joe’s if you want, but you’ll have other options too. If you don’t get a college degree, your life will be a series of dead ends.
They thought they were telling the truth. In their experience, and the experience of their parents and grandparents, this had been the case. Education was the answer for improving one’s status and expanding opportunities. And now, for the first time in the history of America, it isn’t. And we, the first generation having to confront this new reality, have no idea how to make ourselves employable.
After graduation, I reapplied at Trader Joe’s, but I didn’t get rehired. Such jobs, which offer benefits and mobility, are highly coveted now, and the competition is intense. And so I work as a nanny.
A few days ago, the 6-year-old sister of my 4-year-old was sitting at the table complaining about having to do her homework. She whined on and on, but I remained firm: “You must study hard,” I said, “so you can grow up to be a nanny!”
Emily Koss is a nanny living in Glendale.