“I need an extra shot of espresso in my latte” an impetuous woman barks.
You flinch at her shrillness; her demeaning tone irks. Muttering to yourself, you add an extra shot of espresso for her iced latte. Maybe if she knew I was a (doctor, lawyer, accountant), she wouldn’t be so condescending, you think.
The synapses are connecting in your mind. You are a (doctor, lawyer, accountant) and you are retrieving iced lattes in your local coffee shop.
Welcome to America’s sobering reality. In the United States, underemployment hovers in the teens. The Gallup CEO estimated that as many as 30 million Americans are out of work or underemployed.
Employability is central to our identity. It provides socialization, status, and financial security. Employability — particularly in your chosen profession — reaffirms social standing. And, more importantly, your value to society.
There are irrefutable studies connecting unemployment and mental health. But what about underemployment? Yes, this hidden scourge is linked to depression, anxiety, and a general sense of unfulfillment. Underemployment, in fact, may be more damaging than unemployment.
Imagine you have a PhD in chemical engineering. Substituting that chemical engineering degree for a Starbucks mixology degree, you languish in your local coffee shop. Here you are– an accomplished PhD — and your career has degenerated into preparing iced cappuccinos. Add a stifling environment, chafing monotony, and crushing debt. As an impervious customer demands a Pumpkin Spiced Latte right now, your temperament is icier than any chilled drink.
LinkedIn? Try LinkedOut. And, in some cases, checked out. Despite having glittering academic credentials, millions of high-achieving, driven Americans are toiling in service sector position. The Global Recession is the culprit, derailing employment hopes for millions of Americans. The financial impact can be crippling for fresh-faced graduates entering the employment market. Columbia University economist Till von Wachter found that wage loss for 2008 graduates lasts 10 years. At least.
But stalled careers signify more than financial precariousness. For the millions of underemployed Americans, emotions vacillate — from bitterness to listlessness to resentment. A once-rising professional, chronic underemployment inverts your self-identity. It is an ongoing struggle to reconcile your academic background and your new identity as barista or store clerk. And when underemployment seems interminable, it shakes your very core beliefs. You openly wonder, “Does hard work pay off?”
As an underemployed attorney, I understand how psychologically crushing underemployment can be. Initially, you shrug off underemployment; it is reflective of the dismal job market. And after completing grueling academic program, the time off is much-needed. As interviews fizzle and job prospects dwindle, your preternatural calm morphs into cynicism. Once relentlessly upbeat, there is a hardened edge lining your voice.
Your reaction is understandable — even expected. You deserve a successful career reflective of your interests and background. As you languish in temporary positions, you suspect that apathy is consuming your previously insatiable drive. On a cloudy Tuesday, your mood is more melancholy than a Radiohead song. “Is it even worth it?” you groan.
Yes, yes, it is — and in a follow-up piece, I will discuss strategies to accept — and prosper — during these tumultuous times.