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Continued: Recession generation has adulthood on hold

Alyssa Kjellberg still can't believe it. Two years beyond college, her career path has led only to jobs at a greenhouse, a hotel front desk, an aunt's office and a seasonal landscaping company -- all paying less than $12 an hour.

After applying for about 100 jobs, the environmental science major even offered "one week of free labor'' last summer to get a foot in the door at the landscaping company. But that job ended with the season, as will the one she's in now. Her dream of becoming a park ranger or environmental educator is drifting away.

"There are so many people looking for work, you feel lost in the shuffle,'' said Kjellberg, 23. "I see my grandpa who lived through World War II and all he had to go through. Sometimes I feel like I'm living through something like that, too.''

Kjellberg is caught in a generation where gaining economic independence is a longer haul than it was for their middle-class parents -- who continue supporting their now-adult offspring in ways big and small. More than half of the 18- to 24-year-olds surveyed in March by the Pew Research Center said they live with parents now or had recently because of the economy. Among those ages 25 to 29, 41 percent had done the same at some point.

These job seekers were cranking out résumés and trying to enter the workforce just as the unemployment rate for young adults hit its highest point since 1948, when data tracking began. Sometimes called the "Lost Generation," their slow start out of the economic blocks could affect the nature of the middle class far into the future.

"They can't get their foot on the bottom rung of their career ladder,'' said Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. "Research shows their wages will be scarred for their entire lifetimes. They are less likely to get fringe benefits like health care. The jobs they get pay worse.''

Job seekers under age 25 typically are the biggest losers in economic downturns and the current crop is no exception. Nationally, unemployment for them peaked at 18.4 percent in 2010.

Today, it remains at nearly 13 percent in Minnesota and 16 percent nationally -- almost double the overall rate.

Those who did find work saw the biggest drop in earnings of any age group in the Great Recession, according to a new study by the Pew Research Center. From 2007 to 2011, earnings for older workers remained basically flat. But for full-time workers ages 18 to 24, median weekly earnings dropped 6 percent.

It could take a lifetime for them to regain lost wages and opportunities, economists say. The current wave of recovery may have swept right past them, if history is a guide. Seventeen years after the recession of the early 1980s, college grads who entered the workforce during that downturn still earned an average of 10 percent less than those who got their jobs before or after that recession, according to Yale University researcher Lisa Kahn.

But the long-term impact pales compared to the current stress on these children of the middle class trying to make it on their own. So far, their efforts have netted a swirl of temporary jobs, low pay and a chronic state of job searching.

New job reality

Kjellberg thought she did everything right. She took college classes in high school, knew her major the minute she set foot at St. Cloud State University, got good grades and had a decent internship. Then came graduation.

"I've been applying for jobs since 2010,'' said Kjellberg, an outgoing young woman who grew up in Monticello and now lives in Shoreview. "I've been shocked at the number of places you never hear back from.... You start to wonder, should I even apply?"

Kjellberg had envisioned landing a government job at a park where she could be an educator or conservationist. Making ends meet by working in her aunt's office and moving back to her mother's house were not part of the plan.

A decade ago, such a serious job hunter was far more likely to land a job related to their training. Some still do today, but the norm is a longer job search punctuated by multiple entry-level jobs and internships -- sometimes unpaid.

Her boyfriend, Dan Olson, estimates he has had 15 employers in the past four years.

As an apprentice carpenter, he finished a four-year training program last month, progress in his quest to work in commercial construction, with union wages. Now his dream is on hold. He needs 7,000 hours of on-the-job experience to graduate, but he's short 1,000. He is taking resourcefulness to new heights to get those hours.

"I found jobs just driving around, looking for tower cranes,'' said Olson, taking a break from sawing doors at the training center in St. Paul. "I walk up to the job site with my hard hat, safety glasses and tool bag. Sometimes they put you to work.''

But working job-to-job offers little financial stability, said Olson, who lived with his dad until last year. "You can't even afford to go fishing because you can't afford the gas. I sold my truck because I couldn't afford the insurance.''

For many job seekers, uncertainty has become a way of life. Darren Eck, 23, graduated last year with a University of St. Thomas communications degree. He's worked at his college development office, had a digital marketing internship and now has a temporary social media job at a St. Paul nonprofit.

"It's always in the back of your mind: What's your next move going to be?'' said Eck, of Inver Grove Heights. "You send out 50 applications and you might hear back from one or two people. Sometimes you hear back so late that you forgot what you applied for.''

The lucky ones have bucked this trend by landing jobs through connections or by having high-demand skills.

Shortly after finishing a child psychology degree last year at the University of Minnesota, Kelsey Young learned from her brother that a family friend knew of an opening for a therapist for autistic kids -- her specialty. Just three weeks after graduation, Young was hired.

"It's a miracle," she said.

Biding their time

Thousands are turning to national service jobs to wait out the economy, add a credential and do something good for the world in the process.

"It's a nice resting place to figure out what to do next,'' said Erica Linc, 23, of Crystal, who does outreach for a Minneapolis weatherization nonprofit. "You get experience.... Plus it seemed pragmatic to get the (student) loans deferred.''

Others have found an initial job, but keep working toward the career step up that could cement them into the next generation of the middle class.

Emily Thielman, also from Crystal, has a communications degree and works as an events planner, a job she enjoys. But she also freelances as a production assistant for visiting sports networks, such as ESPN, to keep her journalism credentials fresh.

Mark Zaczkowksi found a job in early childhood development soon after college in 2007. Last year, he decided to pursue a master's degree in social work to expand his career prospects and better serve children.

But like many back-to-schoolers, he pads his résumé and wallet between classes, working part time at a children's nonprofit, baby-sitting, dog-sitting and coaching basketball. He occasionally works for a movie-screen cleaning business, removing "Coke and Gummy Bears and pretty much anything you can throw at a screen,'' he joked.

Zaczkowksi, like Thielman, still lives with his parents to save money. The number of multi-generational households is now the highest since the 1950s, according to a survey released in March by the Pew Research Center.

It showed parents and children generally are "content'' -- not "overjoyed'' -- with the arrangement. Thielman's father, Chuck Thielman, sees two sides to having two adult kids unexpectedly back home.

"One advantage is you get to see your kids more often, and it makes you feel younger, too,'' he said. "The disadvantage: You know they'd rather be on their own. And they are adults and we keep bumping into each other.''

There are house rules, such as keeping rooms clean and letting parents know if they're not coming home for the night. The kids' roughly $100 monthly "rent'' includes Internet and cellphone service.

Even as they move back home, juggle multiple jobs and worry about student debt, the recession generation does have something important going for it, according to the Pew Research Center survey.

Optimism.

Olson, still driving around looking for construction cranes, agrees.

"It looks like things are turning around,'' he said. "I'm keeping my fingers crossed.''

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511

Read our series at startribune.com/changed

Previous stories:

March 4: Falling incomes rip a hole in middle class.

March 18: Women slip behind as economy picks up.

Today: Economic downturns hit young job seekers hardest.

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