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JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

From NPR News, it's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Jacki Lyden, in for Guy Raz.

Oh, to be young, educated and unemployed. We start this hour with a cover story about youthful expectations and what's become of them.

LINDEY LOFTIN: I'm Lindey Loftin.

LYDEN: Hi. Jacki Lyden.

LOFTIN: Nice to meet you.

LYDEN: This week, I sat down with 27-year-old Lindey Loftin to talk about her job. It's a job that, according to research from Georgetown University, ranks as the single most employable field you can study in college today. Almost no one graduating in this field is unemployed. Here's a hint.

LOFTIN: A lot of times, they'll say, have you seen the movie "Along Came Polly" with Ben Stiller?

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ALONG CAME POLLY")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Reuben Feffer made a career out of avoiding risk.

BEN STILLER: (as Reuben Feffer) People wonder why they get E. coli poisoning. On average, only one out of every six people wash their hands when they go to the bathroom.

LYDEN: The joke here, of course, is that Ben Stiller's character has one of the most boring risk-free jobs in America. He's an actuarial analyst.

LOFTIN: Right. And...

LYDEN: That's what Lindey does.

LOFTIN: I work on, you know, data for pension plans, and we project how well-funded they're going to be. We use, you know, the current laws...

LYDEN: Not so razzle-dazzle perhaps, but that's the point. Out of 173 fields of study looked at by Georgetown researchers, actuarial analysis ranks as the 150th most popular. And yet, it ranks number one on employability.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LOFTIN: Actually neither of those statistics surprised me that much. When I was researching the career as a student, it always ranked high up there, less stress, great pay and good rate of employment.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LOFTIN: You know, I love music, and I play the cello. And I consider going in to, you know, music education or even becoming a performance major, but I also knew that I was good in the math field, and I looked into the actuarial profession and saw that, well, that's (unintelligible) better of a chance.

LYDEN: Lindey loves her job. She's well-paid. She's independent. And she has no college loan debt. In fact, her employer paid for a portion of her education. Her story raises a lot of questions about the strategy of young, educated jobseekers while they're still in high school. Very few students today choose a career the way Lindey did - cold, calculated, cost-benefit analysis.

But that could change, because here's what young people are up against: Only 55 percent of people ages 16 to 29 have jobs. That is the lowest percentage since World War II. A quarter of people between 25 and 34 are living with mom and dad. And new numbers out this week say people under 35 are worth 68 percent less than 25 years ago.

Good morning to Noreen Malone.

NOREEN MALONE: Good morning.

LYDEN: Last week in New York City, I met up with another 27-year-old, Noreen Malone, a blogger for New York Magazine. Her recent cover story made quite a splash.

MALONE: It's called "The Kids Are Sort of Actually All Right," and it's about what it's like to be a 20-something and what looks like a contracting world right now.

LYDEN: Noreen and I met in Zuccotti Park, site of the Occupy Wall Street protest, because she's been blogging about it. It was partly those demonstrations that got her thinking about all the anxiety amongst people her age. But Noreen could also look closer to home, take her high school buddy, Sam.

MALONE: He went to a very good school.

LYDEN: An Ivy League school.

MALONE: And he...

LYDEN: Studied poetry, graduated. He bounced around for a few years. But when he got serious about finding a job...

MALONE: Getting back on a real career path, he just couldn't. He took out an extra set of loans to go to grad school. He rammed through those pretty quickly. And now he has something like $80,000 worth of debt. And, you know, he can't find a job. And it's...

LYDEN: Now, if that had been just an occasional story, but it wasn't. Noreen heard story after story like this while writing her article.

MALONE: A lot of stories like that, where people have delayed their lives.

LYDEN: And to be sure, there have been other generations who graduated into bleak job markets. Noreen says she got a lot of feedback from members of Generation X, people who said their recession, in the '90s, was just as bad. One guy told her young people today should just quit their whining.

MALONE: This is not the first recession, I know that. This is the first recession where people have taken on so much crushing student debt to go to college. It's actually a big deal if you can't find a job because your loans will go into deferment. You will get a terrible credit score that will haunt you for the rest of your life.

LYDEN: And student debt turns out to be the Godzilla of debt. For the first time ever, there is now more student debt than credit card debt in America, $829 billion in student loans. The average college grad today owes $24,000 in student debt.

TONY CARNEVALE: In the end, I think they did get a raw deal. There's a temptation to say to these young people, grow up and face reality and all the rest of that. But the bottom line is we don't help them much.

LYDEN: Tony Carnevale is director of the Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce. It's his research that says that Lindey...

LOFTIN: Lindwy Loftin. I work for an actuarial consulting firm.

LYDEN: ...pursued one of the most employable college degrees in the country. And that makes her pretty rare.

CARNEVALE: In many cases, the most popular majors pay the least and have the highest unemployment rate. The majors that tend to provide the most employment security and earnings tend to be those with some technical aspect to them.

LYDEN: Carnevale's survey of 2010 census data revealed more students study fields like psychology, English, even journalism than many science and math careers.

CARNEVALE: Pharmacology is another one, not very popular, but the earnings are very high, over $100,000 a year over a 45-year career, and there are very few people who sign up.

LYDEN: Do those jobs seem, in your judgment, boring?

CARNEVALE: I think the reason people don't sign up for the majors that will guarantee them employment and high wages is, to some extent, because they don't know. People make judgments about majors in a very casual way. And American students can switch majors relatively easily and do. They tend to move away from the technical majors and toward the softer, more qualitative kinds of majors.

LYDEN: That's interesting. You should - you would think it might be the other way around.

CARNEVALE: The reason, I suspect, is that people want to do what they like to do. There's nothing wrong with that. We also know from other data that if you don't like what you're doing, you're not going to be very good at it. So, there is that to consider. It's also a case where, I think, people simply don't think about this much until the day comes where they have to deal with the labor market. And the labor market is very unforgiving.

LYDEN: Back in Zuccotti Park, Noreen Malone of New York Magazine told me about another victim of the unforgiving labor market, her younger sister who lives with their parents back in Ohio.

MALONE: She is 24. She graduated from college in 2009, which was probably the worst year to graduate from college and look for a job. And she actually ended up going overseas for a couple of years and working over there. But now she's back and having a pretty hard time finding the kind of work she wants to do.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEPHONE RINGING)

LYDEN: So we gave Claire a call.

CLAIRE: Hello?

LYDEN: And she told us that social networking gives young people the sense that the perfect job is out there and they don't have it.

CLAIRE: Because of all the digital platforms that we have, you know, Facebook and TEDTalks and tweeting, there's always someone who's doing something cooler than you are, it seems. There's a digital proximity, so you're close and you can see all these possibilities in life.

LYDEN: TEDTalks. Barry Schwartz, a psychologist at Swarthmore, calls this the paradox of choice. He's actually given a TED talk about this. It's something he became interested in while shopping. Tell me your blue jeans story.

BARRY SCHWARTZ: So, my blue jeans story is I went in to buy blue jeans at the Gap, as I do as infrequently as possible. And I told them my size. And they said to me, do you want slim fit, easy fit, relax fit? So, I spent an hour trying on all the different kinds of jeans - button fly, zipper fly - that were available - stone-washed, distressed. And I walked out with the best fitting jeans I had ever bought, and I felt worse.

LYDEN: And this demonstrates to you what principle?

SCHWARTZ: What it demonstrates to me is that when we live in a world of essentially limitless options, our expectations about how good the option we end up with should be go through the ceiling. When there are only Levi's and Wranglers, no one expects jeans to fit perfectly. But when there are thousands of different manufacturers and 10,000 different styles, well, damn it, one of them is going to be perfect.

LYDEN: Right.

SCHWARTZ: So you get something that's great, but it's not perfect, then you feel like you've failed.

LYDEN: So, a lot of what young people are dealing with is about shattered expectations. They expected to have jobs in their fields, paid a living wage. And these expectations, if they were - if they were indeed implanted, by whom?

SCHWARTZ: Ah, yes. Well, their parents do a wonderful job of convincing them that they are the sun, the moon and the stars. And for them, the world will open. Then they go to colleges, like the one I teach at, and their teachers and the deans do exactly the same thing. Everything around them tells them that they are capable of achieving and experiencing whatever they want.

Not that long ago, especially if you went to a selective institution, it was reasonable for you to think that no matter what you studied, because you were smart and you had a degree from a good place, the world would open up for you. Those days are gone. What we have is expectations not quite catching up to reality.

LYDEN: Just one last thing, you're a college professor, what do you tell your classes, especially your seniors?

SCHWARTZ: Well, I try to tell them, a good job is good enough. They don't need the best job. And if they can go through their lives looking for and appreciating what's good in their friendships, in their romantic relationships and in their work - even if their work is more modest than it would have been 10 years ago - they can live an incredibly satisfying life that way. But nobody listens to me.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LYDEN: So maybe it comes down to changing your expectations about what life is really all about. Back in New York, Noreen Malone told me that her generation may never earn the money her parents did.

MALONE: But there are all these, you know, I'm better off culturally than my parents, and I'm going to enjoy life better than my parents. Actually, the sociological data backs that up, too, is that people are mainly redefining better life in a different way. It doesn't necessarily mean, like, four cars as opposed to two cars. It might mean enjoying life a little more.

LYDEN: And here's one last fact: According to a recent Pew study, 90 percent of all young people remain optimistic to earn enough in life. And since Noreen Malone's article was published, her sister Claire, who majored in English, did manage to find a job with an Internet start-up back home in Cleveland.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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