Generation Stuck: The Struggling 20-Somethings

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Sam Mackin, Gen Stuck audio diarist, and Morgan Derby, Gen Stuck blogger.
Sam Mackin, Gen Stuck audio diarist, and Morgan Derby, Gen Stuck blogger.

Sam Mackin and Morgan Derby are two voices of a generation of 20-somethings who, on average, are more highly educated, better supported and more accomplishment-oriented than any generation in American history.

And yet, they feel stuck — stuck with massive student loan debt and without the jobs they dreamed of having, stuck living with their parents at home and with the economic consequences of the recession.

Sam and Morgan are just two of the 12 20-somethings who offered to chronicle their lives for WBUR's Generation Stuck project. It's a new radio and digital journey that's come out of WBUR's iLab — our in-house incubator for next generation journalism.

How It All Started

Gen Stuck's creator is Nate Goldman, WBUR's social media producer. Goldman's own experience as a recent college graduate was the inspiration for the project.

"I graduated in 2011, and I spent the next nine months trying to find work," Goldman explained. "My mother actually was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer, and it became very important for me to be able to find a job so I could lessen that financial burden from my family. I spoke a lot with peers about being jobless and wanting to work, and I found a lot of commonalities in our conversations that led to the idea for the project — that this may be a generational thing."

In July, Gen Stuck put out a call out for 20-somethings to submit their personal stories. A flood of responses came in.

"We've heard a lot of stories about expectations of the American Dream and how that matches the American reality, stories of emotional distress as a result of entering the work force in this time period," Goldman said.

Lisa Tobin, Gen Stuck producer and WBUR's senior innovation producer, added, "We were looking for the themes that were starting to stand out: serious student loan debt, returns back to parents' homes at a period in life when people aren't expecting to have to do that, a feeling of being underemployed — I would say that was more pervasive than unemployed — a feeling of being in a job that doesn't feel like it's taking you anywhere, doesn't feel like it's related to the career track you planned to be on, but the feeling that there's no other option."

In total, ten bloggers and two radio diarists were chosen for the project. The dozen Gen Stuck contributors have already started posting their reflections online — and there's been a lot of response.


"We've gotten a lot of positive response...people saying 'This is my story too.' We've also gotten some negative feedback in terms of 'This is an economic recession; everybody's struggling. This is a bunch of whiny kids,'" Tobin said.

"I want to make clear that the point of the series is not to say this generation is in a worse position than everyone else," she continued. "The point is to say you can feel however you want about this generation and about what the future economic repercussions will be, but there's just no denying that many, many, many members of this generation feel stuck — and so this is an outlet for that."

When A Diploma Just Isn't Enough

The Great Recession began in December 2007, and both Sam and Morgan graduated from college shortly thereafter, in May 2009.

During the last week of college, Morgan and her friends were sitting around, trying to think of someone they knew that had a job immediately after graduation; no one knew anyone directly. Each person did know someone a degree away, though. "We had just heard of them. They were supposedly out there," Morgan, now 25 years old, recalled.

"When I was getting out [of school], I went from thinking at least that I'd be able to get out and move out and have a job and make some money to basically almost [being] in panic mode, where I didn't know what to do," said 27-year-old Sam. He was just one of many -- more than half of recent college graduates are unemployed or underemployed.

"For about two years, I had pretty crushing student loan debt," he continued. "I ended up living with my dad, basically digging myself out of a loan hole." Sam's situation echoes the nearly one trillion dollars of student loan debt saddling the nation's recent grads.

The Emotional Toll

After three years of facing what is basically constant rejection and disappointment, it really does mess with your idea of self-worth and self-esteem.

Sam Mackin

Goldman stressed the emotional toll of not being able to find work. "The idea they're unable to extract themselves from this kind of situation is just one of the byproducts of being beaten down over the last several years — being told that there are no jobs out there for them, being turned down time after time again," he said.

Sam experienced that first hand. "After three years of facing what is basically constant rejection and disappointment, it really does mess with your idea of self-worth and self-esteem," he confessed.

Being Slowly Left Behind

Sam currently works as a server at a restaurant and at a local newspaper. "One of my big fears is that a lot of the technologies and a lot of the stuff that I learned in school are slowly becoming obsolete," he shared. "I'm not in a career field where my skill set is being retrained. I'm kind of getting slowly left behind as the world moves on."

Morgan was unemployed or underemployed for the first 15 months after graduating, but she has since been stably employed as a high school English teacher. Despite things seemingly looking up, she's been unable to escape the reality of debt. "In terms of the debt, there definitely is this long term picture of maybe not even feeling stuck but feeling significantly slowed down," she said.

The idea of buying a house is kind of unfathomable, I think, for many people in my generation, including myself.

Morgan Derby

Though Morgan is only 25, many of her friends are in their 30s. "It's sort of this weird bubble where I see all these people that are doing the stereotypical [things like] getting married, buying their first homes, and starting to have babies. The idea of buying a house is kind of unfathomable, I think, for many people in my generation, including myself," she said.

What's Next

Feel stuck? Record your story: 617-353-0683

Over the next eight weeks, the Gen Stuck bloggers will answer different questions; themes will include underemployment, education, debt and finance, entitlement and the American Dream. In November, a series of radio documentaries, using material from the two Gen Stuck audio diarists, will air.

Gen Stuck just opened a voicemail line for people to share their own stories or their responses to what they've read online.

Goldman emphasized that the goal of Gen Stuck is to highlight personal stories, rather than high level statistics.


Are you in your 20s and feeling stuck? Is the job market looking dismal? Do you feel like you've been robbed of the American Dream?



This segment aired on September 28, 2012.


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