Today was my first day as a Field Researcher for the Chicago Office of Tourism’s Neighborhood Mapping Project. I rose with vigor this morning, eager to get started after five months of semi-retirement (I will still continue the freelance projects that kept me sane). I felt like Mary Tyler Moore as I strode down Damen Street in my smart black leather jacket and purple scarf, walking purposefully on my way to the el. This time, I was not going for personal training, a bikini wax or to meet Eddie for lunch. I am working dammit!
The project’s offices are downtown at Randolph and Michigan, in the Hot Tix building on the third floor. Orientation began at 9:00 and we set about the usual first day on the job business: icebreaker exercises, paperwork and going over rules and regulations. The fun starts tomorrow when I and my teammate (a dude named Sam) will head out into the field to start investigating Chinatown.
Anyway, as the morning wore on, I started to feel distinctly elderly. It was more than just the youthful faces of the other five Field Researchers I was training with. As we took turns going around the table and talking about ourselves and where we lived, no fewer than three of my colleagues reported living with their parents. My stomach continued to drop when most of them alluded to being recent graduates – Bachelor’s degrees, not Master’s. It turns out that except for this Golden Girl (I fancy myself Rose, but am more honestly a Dorothy/Sophia hybrid), the average number of years away from undergrad was a measly one. Gulp.
At lunch I asked one guy, Kyle, who lives on the South Side, what he did before he came onboard. He said he had been a flower delivery boy. Two years ago he earned his art history degree from UIC. Another girl had been living with her parents in Peoria, basically doing odd jobs until this came up and she moved in with her brother in Lombard. Yet another girl lives in Lincoln Square with her folks and worked for her dad part-time until she landed this four month gig.
Once I got over my early-30s vanity, this information moved me to think in another direction. I realize I sound like a grandmother telling tall tales here, but those of you over the age of 28 know what I am talking about. Time was, as little as nine years ago, earning a college degree, even an Art History, or in my case, English Lit. specialization guaranteed you some form of life sustaining employment. It may not be glamorous, or the in field you dreamed you’d land, but you’d find work, earning enough to consider getting a roommate and leaving the nest for good. In my case, that first job was a corporate call center travel agent for Carlson Wagonlit, working on the Accenture account. This was no what I wanted to do for life, but it was enough to get me started.
What is out there for graduates now? Kyle, the flower delivery man, said he had felt lucky even to get that job. So then I took my musings a step further. If college graduates are working part-time, unskilled jobs, what’s left for everybody else? This is a sobering question.
With the unemployment rate currently at 9.8% nationally, and 17% if you factor in the total number of people who are working part time but would rather be working full time, and those who have simply given up looking for work because they are too discouraged by their bleak prospects – it’s a rotten time to be a recent grad. So instead of feeling like an out of touch senior who cannot figure out the Blackberry device handed out with her field materials, I choose to look at myself as wise old Aunt Becky. As a woman who has weathered a layoff, career change and a naked man in a tree (another story for another time) in the course of her working life, I can teach the newbies a thing or two – and maybe we can all figure out what’s next.