In a depressing sign of the times, a survey released this week shows a record number of college-educated Americans self-identify as “lower-class.” This news, sadly, is hardly shocking. It’s just another unpleasant reminder of the challenges millenial UC Berkeley students face as we prepare to depart the Berkeley bubble for the real world.
The General Social Survey, which measures social change in America, reported that in 2012, a full 3 percent of Americans with college degrees identified as lower class, up from 1.7 percent in 2002. While at a glance these numbers seem low and the difference between them insignificant, never before in the history of the survey (which started in 1972) has such a large portion of college-educated Americans considered themselves lower class.
To borrow a phrase from UC Berkeley public policy professor Jane Mauldon, why the shift in “class identities?”
Simply put, more and more members of our generation are probably realizing that the middle-class promise, the idea that hard work and a college degree would lead to a stable career, is illusory. Last month, the unemployment rate for 18- to 29-year-olds, adjusted for those not in the labor force, was about 11 percent. In comparison, the national unemployment rate is 7.3 percent.
Even without counting the millions of graduates underemployed working jobs such as barista or sandwich artist, these figures are troubling on their own and explain some of the economic unease illustrated in the survey. These statistics, however, are only part of the picture.
UC Berkeley is an elite university with an aesthetic to match that status. When prospective students come to visit, they see the magnificent pillars of Sproul Hall and the beauty and scope of the Doe Library. They learn about the storied history of the Free Speech Movement as well as the top-tier academic research that happens on this campus. What they aren’t prepared for, though, is what happens when their time at Berkeley is over.
Students here know all too well the fear of becoming a second-semester senior with no post-graduation job lined up and a degree society tells them is worthless because it’s in the wrong major. Even previously “secure” concentrations in fields such as biology and economics are no longer so safe, seemingly independent of the high GPAs we work to achieve during our time here.
While the campus offers resources such as Callisto and appointments at the career center, they are insufficient in assisting students coping with an economic environment unlike any other in the last quarter-century.
But even if we can’t overcome this challenge on our own, the Berkeley community still has resources left to offer.
Berkeley alumni are some of the most accomplished in the world, counting Fortune 500 CEOs and Supreme Court justices among their ranks. Strengthening the connections between alumni and present undergraduates would give students professional development opportunities that are hard to find in the present economy.
Another strategy is to get professors involved in the job hunt process earlier on. A lack of exposure to relevant career paths is part of the reason many leave UC Berkeley with no prospects lined up. Some professors already do this. A number even use their courses to showcase different occupations available to people with what might be considered less “practical” degrees.
Still, better professional development may not be enough.
The moment in which many soon-to-be-graduates or recent graduates find themselves is complex. On one hand, getting those internships and letters of recommendation really does make a difference. On the other, taking an unpaid internship to advance a career is a luxury many cannot afford.
Millennials are hurting right now, and because no one seems to care, many of us have decided to tune out for lack of a better option. Here’s to hoping someone thinks of one.