The Grim Reality of Underemployment

Underemployment. It may sound like yet another phrase from the “Me Me Me generation” of entitled spoiled brats (Thanks for that Joel Stein!) but it is no laughing matter. This is not simply a case of being overqualified for an admin position in a corporation. Rather it is looking for a job, any job, that pays minimum wage with full availability, and still being given less than full time employment. Retail positions take advantage of millennials like it is going out of style. We want better jobs, we want to be able to begin to pay back our loans, but WE CAN’T. The jobs are simply NOT THERE! How do I know this? Let me tell you about my life from 2010 to 2011.

My husband and I moved to Charlottesville, VA so that he could begin his studies at UVA Law starting August 2010. I had just received my MA degree in politics and was working on getting into the PhD program at UVA to begin the following year. As soon as I left school, my loans came crashing in and I needed to find a job so that I could pay them back. Also, while my husband could pay for rent with his financial aid, we simply didn’t have enough to cover groceries (and Joel Stein, just so you know, we aren’t talking about Whole Foods or even Trader Joes- we are talking about Kroger brand soda, rice, pasta, and occasionally, if they were on sale, apples).

I had worked in retail all through undergrad and had experience as a supervisor and “key holder” so I peppered the town with applications for positions that might pay slightly above minimum wage. I got a callback immediately from one women’s clothing store (hint: they only sell clothing in two colors plus one additional seasonal shade). But the deal was that they insisted that I buy their overpriced clothes if I wanted the job. This is not really a great deal if you are struggling to simply buy groceries.  My second call was from another mid-scale clothing store (hint: they put the prep in preppy). They offered me an hourly wage of $8.50 to start plus minor commission and promised 30 hours/week. Also gave a hefty discount on clothes and didn’t demand I wear their stuff. So I took it!

Turns out the 30 hrs was a bit optimistic I ended up getting on average only 25 hours/week. But I tried to make up for this by spreading the word that I would cover any and all shifts that my coworkers didn’t want. This tended to get me up to the amount of money I needed each week. I’m a hard worker so within a few months I moved up to personal shopper. This gave me a commission on every sale I put together and during the holidays, in particular, I was bringing in enough money for us to get by.

Then something happened. I don’t know what. But for some reason my manager decided to begin scheduling me for 20 hours a week. I was often scheduled for evening shifts during the week, which were not prime sales hours so my commission didn’t even come close to making up for the decrease in hours. She also began to keep me off the floor more and more which also cut into my commission. It played havoc with my budget. (Yes, Joel Stein, I have a budget- an excel spreadsheet where I carefully track my spending and expenditures) When I approached her to explain that I needed to be able to work more regular hours she told me to deal with it- seriously.

Okay, I thought, so maybe I need to face the reality that working full time isn’t going to work in retail- so I’ll get a second job. That’ll work right? Wrong. I approached my manager with this plan and asked her to give me a sense of what type of schedule I could give out for the second job. She said that I would need to be available 3 of the 5 weekdays and 1 weekend a month. I asked if that meant I would be guaranteed to work those days and she said no. (By the way, did I mention that I brought in the most customers out of all of the personal shoppers? That I had brought a $2,000 sale into the store? That I had been congratulated by the District Headquarters for my work? But did that matter? No. I was unemployed with zero flexibility to try and get a second job just like everyone else.)

I finally lined up a job with the company that I had worked for during undergrad- a major national bookstore chain. My hours weren’t much better but at least it was a less stressful working environment. Unfortunately the reality of the underemployment meant that my husband and I had to sublet our apartment and move in with his parents over the summer. Did we want to do this? No. But we had to. My husband was doing his 1L job- a right of passage that is- you guessed it! Unpaid. (Although, of course, it may have been paid in the hey-day of the mid-2000s)

So I ask you Joel Stein and all of the rest of you who seem to enjoy lambasting my generation for our lack of work ethic, does this sound like the actions of a “lazy, entitled narcissist?” I wanted to work full time. I wanted to do well in my position. I was even willing to get two jobs to make ends meet. But I was foiled by the current economic realities.

 So I have two words for you: BACK OFF! I don’t care how funny you think you are. I am working my ass off to get by in this economic meltdown that, by the way, I had nothing to do with. I don’t need you to sit in your high rise office and tell me that I’m doing everything wrong. And I also don’t then need others to jump to my aid with the lame response that every generation has been called the Me Me Me Generation. Rather I need articles that talk about my friends and I- our lives- how we are scraping to get by. Meet us-hear our stories about unemployment, the shame of moving back in with our parents, the discrimination we face because we have student loans, and the resourceful ways that we are working to make things better.

We are the Survivor Generation.

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