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Young adults trying to find way in recessionary world

Tim Martens (left) talks with his friend Conor Clarke his sister Saoirse during dinner Clarke's parents home West Dundee. Like

Tim Martens (left) talks with his friend Conor Clarke and his sister Saoirse during dinner at Clarke's parents home in West Dundee. Like many college graduates, the friends have been searching for a jobs in their field. October 5, 2011 | Michael Smart~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: January 23, 2012 4:13AM

WEST DUNDEE — Sitting around his parents’ kitchen table snacking on boneless wings and nachos, Conor Clarke and his friends appear to be an affable, humorous, even happy group of young adults.

Which is to say they don’t expect anyone to feel sorry for them. Like most Americans, they are figuring out how make their way in a world with a shaky economy. And like more and more people their age, they are doing that plotting while still living at home.

When Clarke, Jacque Currie, Tim Martens and Will Pollack, all 22, graduated from Elgin’s St. Edward High School four years ago, the recession was in its early stages. They remember being told things surely would be better when they finished college.

Data recently released from the U.S. Census Bureau show the impact of that recession, which officially ended in mid-2009 but which a good many people say has entered a second stage. It notes what seems obvious: there are fewer prospects for young adults coming of age in a prolonged period of joblessness.

“I remember when news reports were saying the recession was supposed to be over, talking to my parents about it, and we were all saying, ‘Really? Over for whom?’” said Clarke, of West Dundee.

“We have a monster jobs problem, and young people are the biggest losers,” said Andrew Sum, an economist and director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University. He noted that recent college graduates who now are just getting by on waitressing, bartending and odd jobs will have to compete with new graduates for entry-level career positions when the job market finally improves.

According to 2010 census figures, employment among young adults ages 16 to 29 was 55.3 percent, compared with 67.3 percent in 2000. That is the lowest rate since the end of World War II.

“The really high levels of underemployment and unemployment will haunt young people for at least another decade,” Sum said.

Low-end work

Clarke graduated from the University of Illinois last spring with a degree in advertising. He found a marketing-related job filling in for someone out on maternity leave at a company in the paper shredder business. His job recently involved looking up online what European competition has to offer, and shredding paper to be put in displays at a national office supply chain’s locations.

“This looks better on a resume than waiting tables,” Clarke said.

Currie, of Elgin, works as a dental assistant and a waitress. She takes classes at Elgin Community College and is planning to study comedic acting at The Second City in Chicago.

Martens, of Elgin, graduated in May from the U of I with a degree in film studies. He is working part-time as a janitor at St. Thomas More parish in Elgin, a job he has had since high school.

And Pollack, of Elgin, graduated this spring from Loras College in Iowa with a degree in accounting and finance. He recently found a job through an agency doing accountancy work at Walgreens’ corporate office in Deerfield.

None of their jobs offer health insurance benefits. And three of the four are in double-digit debt.

Clarke attended ECC for two years, then spent two at U of I and took out $30,000 in loans. With four years in Champaign, Martens owes about $60,000, while Pollack puts his debt from attending a private college at between $75,000 and $80,000. That’s not counting what they all might owe on credit cards.

As such, the frugal four said they shop at thrift shops now, if at all. Martens noted that socializing is even more money-conscious than it was at college and heading out for $1 beer nights.

“We usually hang out at each other’s basements watching movies on Netflix. When our parents have parties, we find ourselves hanging out with people in their 50s,” Martens said.

“I like to go to a lot of concerts. But I’ve made friends who can put me on the guest lists. And sometimes bands I know let me use hotel rooms they aren’t using,” Currie said.

“I make sock puppets,” Pollack joked.

Staying put

The four noted that most of their friends find themselves in the same leaky boat, though there are a couple of buddies who have landed dream jobs. After serving an internship at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, one is working on the sports desk at that paper. Another pal is working paid internships in Hollywood at two small film production companies.

According to Census Bureau numbers, without such job prospects, most young adults aren’t starting careers and lives in new cities. Among adults ages 18 to 34, the share of long-distance moves across state lines fell last year to roughly 3.2 million people, or 4.4 percent, the lowest level since World War II. For college graduates, who historically are more likely to relocate out of state, long-distance moves dipped to 2.4 percent.

Opting to stay put, roughly 5.9 million Americans ages 25 to 34 last year lived with their parents, an increase of 25 percent from before the recession. Driven by a record 1 in 5 young men who doubled up in households, men now are nearly twice as likely as women to live with their parents.

Among Clarke’s circle, all had other adult-age siblings living at home, too.

“Many young adults are essentially postponing adulthood and all of the family responsibilities and extra costs that go along with it,” said Mark Mather, an associate vice president at the private Population Reference Bureau. He described a shift toward a new U.S. norm, one that is commonly seen in Europe, in which more people wait until their 30s to leave the parental nest.

“Some of these changes started before the recession but now they are accelerating, with effects on families that could be long term,” Mather said.

Parental woes, too

Of course, older adults have been impacted by the bad economy in ways beyond having grown children still at home.

In the wake of the recession, Clarke’s parents reorganized and downsized their Irish import business, and his father took a job managing a bar. Currie said her father lost his job installing phone systems. Martens said his father works at home and frequently puts in 14-hour days at his sales job. Pollack’s dad is a carpenter, and the work has been sporadic in the slow economy.

All three young men are seriously considering returning to college, even though they know that will mean going deeper into debt.

The group sees a lack of resolve by politicians to remedy the economic situation.

“It seems nobody wants to try to fix things together. It might mean giving the other side credit,” Martens said.

Yet, instead of just moping about their situation, the friends continue to look for work and to enjoy things they like to do. For Martens, that includes maintaining his own movie review website, Martens and Clarke also are planning a show for their college band, The DILFs, for the day before Thanksgiving.

And Clarke’s sister, Saoirse, is looking forward to turning 21 in December and a party at McGonigal’s in Barrington, where she is a waitress.

Saoirse is an ECC student planning to become an elementary education teacher. She has been told the market will be best for those who are bilingual or specialize in special ed.

Still, like her brother and his friends, “We’ve been told the economy will be better when we graduate, too,” Saoirse said.

With wire reports

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