One in an occasional series
Staring at the Rocky Mountains in the summer heat, Mike Deaven, 24 and jobless, was trying to make sense of his fast-fraying life.
He'd been The Latest Thing - a young, fresh engineer at a Warminster firm. And that's precisely why, he says, he was laid off in April from his $61,000-a-year job.
"It's good for a company to have new blood," Deaven said by phone as he drove across America to clear his head. "But it's strange that's the first thing they give away in a bad economy."
Initially exhilarating, the Rockies were, by Wyoming, closing in on Deaven, looking more like a fence than freedom - and reminding him of his Pennsylvania troubles.
"The mountains . . . ," he writes in a cyber-diary, feel like "the crushingly narrow state of unemployment. And this is where I am now, on Route 80 and in life."
At the moment they should be blasting off, many in their 20s are finding their trajectories altered, or their launches stalled, by the dream-killing economy.
While national unemployment is at 9.4 percent, people ages 20 to 29 face jobless rates of 12.7 percent nationally and 14 percent in the Philadelphia metropolitan area, including South Jersey, according to figures compiled by Mark Price of the Keystone Research Center in Harrisburg.
Aside from teenagers, people in their 20s endure the highest rate of unemployment of any age group, U.S. Department of Labor statistics show.
And while the overall rate of U.S. unemployment increased 3.9 percentage points between June 2008 and June 2009, the rate for people in their 20s went up about 5 points, said economist Heidi Shierholz of the Economic Policy Institute in Washington.
"Younger workers are hit the hardest in this downturn," she said. "Lower levels of experience are the last hired, first fired."
Currently, Shierholz said, there are six unemployed workers for every available job in the nation. And, while some economists say the recession is coming to an end, they also expect job losses to continue.
Even when there are openings, Shierholz said, "people don't pick the young. For the same wage, they can get someone with more experience." Some experts disagree, citing anecdotal evidence that older unemployed workers are most often denied jobs.
Nevertheless, with dreams deflated or deferred, many workers in their 20s whose promise had been nurtured in universities find the real world harrowing. In interviews, more than a dozen young people talked about the challenge of being taken out of the game just as they were learning how to play.
"I worked hard in college," said the bearded and burly Deaven, who graduated from Pennsylvania State University and, after just two years on the job, now worries about making the $965 rent payments on his Center City apartment.
"I'm used to seeing hard work rewarded. Now I'm dropped because I'm the new guy? How will I get experience? This is a bleak feeling."
The Schuylkill looked brown and placid in Bridgeport, Montgomery County, on a miasmic morning, and lush riverbank vegetation gave the scene an Amazonian feel.
Jason Bohot, 27, who should be designing buildings as an architect, was here instead, teaching rowing to Upper Merion High School kids.
He's been volunteering his time during the summer, having made the rough equivalent of $4 an hour teaching part-time during the spring rowing season.
With a preprofessional degree in architecture from Temple University, Bohot, fit and contemplative, lives in nearby King of Prussia. He had been laying the foundation for his career by helping to design Quiznos restaurants for a Lansdale architectural firm.
But in July 2008, 19 months into the job, he was let go because the construction industry had ground to a halt.
Desperate for work, Bohot traveled to Austin, Texas, to live rent-free with his sister. Rather than helping to design sandwich shops, he found himself working in one - for $7 an hour.
After five months, homesick and feeling woefully underemployed, Bohot drove 36 straight hours back to Pennsylvania and parlayed his love of rowing into the part-time gig.
But meager pay compels him to live with his parents. Meanwhile, his head is stuffed with blueprints of buildings he fears he will never be able to build.
Needing money, Bohot took a desperate step: He enlisted in the National Guard, for a $10,000 signing bonus and $130 a month.
Basic training begins Sept. 15. And, Bohot's recruiter told him, there's a 50-50 chance he'll be deployed somewhere - maybe Afghanistan.
For a young man who only wanted to build things, it's a potentially dangerous detour from the working world.
"I feel terrible," Bohot confessed. "I'd like to be working in my field."
Just then he turned his attention to a hubbub among the students, who had found two spiders in the boat they were about to launch.
Shaking his head, Bohot dutifully killed the creatures, then helped place the boat gently into the still water. "Let's go," he said quietly.
Ruling the bar at the South Philly Bar & Grill in the cheesesteak-tourist district on Passyunk Avenue near Pat's and Geno's, Ariel Na'aman dresses for customer attention: tight pink-and-white-striped top, gleaming piercings, and huge earrings on which birds could perch.
A laid-off executive at Alstin Communications in Center City, Na'aman, 26, is now a part-time bartender. She learned from her advertising job that sex sells, and will adjust her shirt zipper accordingly.
"Here is $100 in tips," she said, the zipper at a modest height. "And here's $200," she said, pulling it lower. "I project the attitude of scantily clad barmaid."
She wasn't always this comfortable.
"I was indignant when I got laid off because of the economy last fall," said Na'aman, a Temple journalism/advertising graduate whose family is from Israel. "I had a cushy office job, and now I'm serving drunken jerks? At first, they treated me like an uneducated piece of dirt.
"But money is money, and I tell them that they're jerks, especially Mets fans. And I make a killer margarita."
The other day, warming rays from the late-afternoon sun illuminated happy hour in the bar and shot light through bottles of amber liquids stored on shelves above Na'aman's head.
She popped open a Red Bull; Na'aman drinks $20 worth of the caffeinated concoction a day to stay edgy and alert.
When customers came in, she smiled broadly, calling them "babe." She often said, "What can I do for youse?," acknowledging privately that she doesn't speak this way outside South Philly, or in front of her mother, a former English major.
When she goes on job interviews, she removes rings from her tongue and eyebrow. "Human resources doesn't like piercings," she said. But lately, interviews have been nonexistent, so the skin hardware pretty much stays in.
"Hey," she said philosophically as she poured a beer, "if you're going to lose your job, do it in your 20s."
Experts agree. "Twenty-year-olds don't have the same debt as 50-year-olds," said Sue Pressman, president of the National Employment Counseling Association in Alexandria, Va.
While they might be dealing with student loans, she said, "they don't have to pay for their kids' college, mortgages, cars in the driveway."
In fact, Pressman said, many 20-year-olds are quite resilient. "I call their generation - the Millennials - the Mobile Millennials. Quite a few actually enjoy change at their age.
"They don't expect to work for just one company, and while 50-year-olds look for jobs similar to their lost ones and collect unemployment checks," those in their 20s are more willing to take lesser jobs because they're used to menial work from student days, she added.
They can cope better with unemployment, said Cheryl Spaulding, president of Joseph's People, a support group for the unemployed in Downingtown.
"They don't have too much ego invested in their careers yet," she said. "If you were first something else, then became a bartender in your 20s, who cares? When you're 50 and have to be a bartender after a career, though, it's a different matter."
It's not that simple, said Robert Chope, a professor of counseling at San Francisco State University.
Echoing Mike Deaven on the Wyoming roadside, Chope said that people in their 20s who are fresh out of college are used to the meritocracy of the scholarly environment, where hard work is compensated.
They do well in school, get jobs they love, then lose them. "For many, it's like falling off a cliff," Chope said.
For her part, Na'aman said she's not torn up by her bartending turn: "It gives you time to replenish the 401(k)."
But her boss, Kenny Brownell, acknowledged, "It's terrible a person trained in college can't work in her field. I have to say, though, she's good for us - socially gifted and pretty."
Na'aman declared she won't be bartending when she's 30.
"I got excited to discover that I wanted a career in advertising," said Na'aman, who helped develop classified ads for online sites and newspapers. "It was a flash of destiny. And I know I've got a lot more to offer the world than a cosmopolitan."
Planning the next step
Upstairs in the chic seats at the Continental Mid-Town restaurant in Center City, three young friends thrust into the abyss of unemployment explained how they planned to fight their way out - with their crisp, tony clothes intact.
Mindful of their budgets, the women sipped water and talked about what was lost and what could be won.
Nicola Wedderburn, 28, and Allison Papson and Shirelle James, both 27, had been installed in their dream jobs.
Wedderburn and James both were laid off last month from Ideablob.com, in Spring House, Montgomery County. It's a Web site where entrepreneurs share ideas.
"You're starting out, you're loving work, then it's gone," said Wedderburn, a Jamaican immigrant living in Sharon Hill, Delaware County.
"The loss was so shocking I felt like crawling under a rock," said James, of Northeast Philadelphia, who plans to get married this month.
Papson, of Center City, was an assignment editor for Fox29 TV news until mid-July. "It'd be easy to become debilitated," she said.
But all three women say they are looking at their losses as opportunities. James wants to start a computer consulting company, while Wedderburn is thinking about event planning and will, in fact, host a party for single, laid-off people in Center City next month. Papson said she was feeling a freedom to look in new directions. Like many of the other 20-somethings interviewed, Papson has been helped by her parents.
"In the end," Wedderburn said, "you have to decide whether you're going down or moving forward."
Not everyone can be so sanguine.
Katie Rust, 26, of Beverly, Burlington County, said she had to move back in with her father after being laid off from an administrative job at a Cherry Hill real estate firm in February.
"I'm losing my apartment, my own space - it takes a toll," she said. "I was making $36,000 at a stable job, then, boom, it's over."
Similarly, Mike Tyler, 26, of Blackwood, Camden County, is at a loss to figure how he'll survive his layoff from an Ohio company for which he was a computer technician in South Jersey.
He believes the company targeted him because he's single without a family. "They said, 'Hey, Mike's got nobody depending on him.'
"But I did have stuff to lose. I had an apartment, I had a life and plans. Now I'm back with my parents. My whole next year is crushed."
It's a shared circumstance. And the immediate future doesn't look good.
"Since this recession started," Mike Deaven said from the West, "two college classes have graduated, and they're piling up behind me. The pool of people looking for jobs is getting bigger, especially at entry level. It feels hopeless."
Days later, in his diary, Deaven wrangles with the notion of returning to school for a master's degree in computer science.
"It might be time to retreat, regroup and come back stronger in a few years," he writes. Then, confessing his unbounded frustration, he adds, "Unemployment . . . is arduous, seemingly endless . . . not an adventure but a tribulation. . . . Without a plan I feel hopeless."
Previous articles in the series, plus Jane Von Bergen's "Jobbing" blog and an interactive map of jobless claims, are at http://go.philly.com/jobbingEndText