Congratulations, grad, you’re unemployed

President Obama delivers the 2012 commencement address at Barnard College in New York on May 14, 2012

Article Highlights

  • Though May is supposed to be a time of excitement for college seniors entering the workforce, too many face an uncertain future

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  • Government data last year found that 53.6% of people under age 25 with a bachelor’s degree were unemployed or underemployed

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  • Some advice to new grads: Learn how government manipulation of market forces stunts job growth

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Just when it looked like the job market was going to rebound, recent unemployment numbers revealed a disappointing reality. The April unemployment rate decreased to 8.1 percent from 8.2 percent; however, the percentage of working-age Americans in the labor force dropped to its lowest rate (63.6 percent) since 1981. Roughly 342,000 Americans dropped out of the labor market. That’s more than double the number of jobs created between March and April.

But as bad as this employment outlook is, it is particularly harsh for recent college graduates. Though May is supposed to be a time of excitement for college seniors as they celebrate earning their degrees and prepare to enter the workforce, too many graduates face a bleak job market and an uncertain future.

Government data last year found that 53.6 percent of people under age 25 with a bachelor’s degree — about 1.5 million people — were unemployed or underemployed. It is the highest percentage in more than a decade, reflecting just how far the economy is from recovery.

This means that the under-25 population is probably paying more attention to Washington politics than ever. In 2008, 49 percent of Americans ages 18 to 24 voted, which represented an increase of 2 percentage points from 2004. This is still the lowest voting rate by age segment, meaning there is room for young voters to play a bigger role in the 2012 election.

But in many ways, focusing on politics is a diversion from what young, unemployed Americans should be concerned with. The policies that elected officials in Washington are passing (or not passing) directly affect this young cohort’s job prospects. Yet this often comes as a surprise to students — who are usually more interested in a particular policy’s intention, rather than its result.

Furthermore, this isn’t really a partisan issue. Members of both parties promise to fix problems with legislation that too often ends up creating more problems for job seekers. We see this happen with calls to raise the minimum wage, to exercise greater government control over health care and to create a “green economy” with “green jobs.”

The left has dominated academia for so long that students too often see only one side of the policy debate and don’t learn about some policies that would actually help their job prospects. This means that if you’re under 25 — and one of the 1.5 million unemployed or underemployed graduates — you probably have a few questions. Strongly worded questions, I imagine. Questions like, why is it worse for me than it was for my parents? Why can’t I find a job commensurate with my education? Why am I living with my parents?

You are right to ask these questions. But it would be better if you actually sought the answers yourself. Parents, too, who aren’t sure what to do about their recent graduate living in the basement should help by providing the right materials so their child can get the education in economics he or she didn’t get in college.

So here’s some advice: Learn how government manipulation of market forces stunts job growth. Read about the differences between an economy based on free-market principles and one in which government picks the winners and losers.

Then, when you are in the voting booth, you can make an informed decision to elect politicians who support policies that will improve our economy. Your peers and the class of 2013 will thank you.

Karin Agness is the director of academic programs at the American Enterprise Institute, which publishes the “Values and Capitalism” book series, intended to provide a free-market education for today’s students. Follow Agness on Twitter @karinagness and follow Values and Capitalism @ValuesandCap.

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About the Author


  • Karin Agness was the director of academic programs at AEI. Prior to joining AEI, she practiced law at Wiley Rein LLP in Washington, D.C. In 2011, she was selected for the Forbes 30 under 30 list for Law and Policy.

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