Young adults across Chicagoland say they continue to fight a tough job market, the high cost of living, and pressures such as moving back home with their parents and paying back steep tuition loans.
However, some optimistically predict that coming of age during an economic meltdown could lead to unique generational strengths.
"We were told to work hard, keep our noses clean, graduate and you'll get a job, and when that promise is broken, it becomes a more distressing event," said Glencoe native Matthew Segal, who founded the 30-and-under advocacy group OUR TIME. "Clearly, the recession had a disproportionate effect on young workers."
An 'Opportune Environment' for Entrepreneurship
Yet, even as they've become disillusioned with traditional career paths, many members of the “Millennial Generation” have matured in a vibrant social media era of "ingenuity and entrepreneurship," Segal said.
Combine that with creativity, ready access to online do-it-yourself training and an unparalleled ability to maintain ties with peers, and it adds up to new start-ups, Segal, 25, said.
"This is an opportune environment for young entrepreneurs," he said. "You're going to see a whole new culture of entrepreneurship in my generation. I predict it confidently."
Jack Bentley, 25, of Downers Grove, agreed that the current difficulties could lead to lasting change.
"We're the generation that will compulsively think outside the box in all areas," said Bentley, soon to begin his third year at Kent Law School.
Instead of a steep ascent up the ladder, some peers feel success must be wrested again and again, Bentley said.
"I have a friend who wanted the big marketing firm job but instead found these little niches. He did social media for Chicago's Olympic bid. But when that didn't work out, he sold J.Crew and lived with his parents," Bentley said.
For some, it's all but impossible to separate the "financial cataclysm" with their personal lives, Bentley said.
"College tuition is going through the roof, we're generating mountains of debt, we all thought it was going to lead to a better way of life," he said.
Degree Still Pays Off for Most
For most grads 30 years old and younger, a college degree still pays off, said University of Chicago economics professor Dr. Derek Neal, an Orland Park native.
Studies continue to show that average lifetime earnings for a college graduate will be substantially higher than for a non-grad, Neal noted.
Another reason to go to grad school now is the relative cost, Neal said.
"What's the real cost of grad school? Tuition? No, the big cost of college is not the student loans, it's all the earnings you gave up," he said. "So what better time to go to graduate school than during a recession? If the job market's bad, that makes studying cheap.”
Don't Fear the Unemployment Stigma
However, graduates should not return for additional degrees just to avoid a perceived stigma of unemployment or underemployment, Neal said.
"If somebody had been driving through a small town in Alabama and saw trees blown down all over the place, would they say, 'These are people who don't care how their yard looks?' No, everybody knows a tornado came through here," Neal said.
Similarly, grads should not fret about having non-career jobs on their resumes, Neal advised.
"Nobody's not going to hire you because you're working a job to pay off your student loans," he said. "However, it might not make sense to take a job that gets in the way of applying for your real job. If you're working 6 to 10 at a Culver’s, there's not going to be any downside."
Seeking Related Job Experience
Homewood native Cait Colin, 23, expected to find a high school teaching position when she graduated from Illinois State University in 2010, but she’s still searching.
When she’s not filling out online applications, she tutors and works as a teacher's aide at an area alternative school.
"Upon graduation, and up until that point, I'd done everything I should have done, so theoretically I should have gotten a teaching job, but that didn't happen," Colin said.
"I had to reflect and think about why I pursued a degree in education in the first place," she said. "I'm not doing exactly what I envisioned, (but) I still effected change in students and see them grow."
Although she described her work as rewarding, she admitted, "financially, I'm not where I should be."
Young 'Homewood Project' Founders
The Thomases say many of their friends struggle to carve a professional niche.
"Until we do solve the work to worker issue, plan on seeing more and more of us young guys trying to make our little dent in the economy," Colin Thomas wrote in an email. "Angela and I are a product of the economy downturn in a way. I can see more and more people finding their legs by becoming self-made."
Writes Angela: "I do not think being self employed is for everyone, but I do think it can be a good avenue for people to find work. One thing to remember though, someone looking to start their own business really needs to look at the market, the town, and the people, and make sure there is a demand for what they are trying to offer."
Plunging Into the Workforce
Some Millennials, such as Naperville resident Jessica Tannenbaum, 27, say they've found success by direct entry into the workforce.
Tannenbaum said she's looking forward to a new sales position at the new Bettenhausen Fiat Dealership in Tinley Park. She recalls the phone conversation with her former boss, Matt Higgins.
"Matt called and asked if I was ready to change my life and come sell cars," she said.
Tannenbaum said she's worked sales since high school and did not consider college.
"Me and school didn't mix very well," she commented wryly.
However, give her a sales floor and she comes alive, said Tannenbaum, who says she does not regret forgoing college.
"I have a friend that went four years, then more for a master's degree in strategic management, and she's a nanny," she said. "No one will hire you because you don't have experience, and you can't get experience because no one will hire you."
"If you have the right motivation and drive, college may not be the best answer," said Higgins, general sales manager at Bettenhausen. "Young people forget you can earn a very lucrative living going into a trade."
How lucrative can auto sales be?
"Six figures," Higgins said without hesitation.
At Home in the Heights
At 301 S. Halsted St. in Chicago Heights, Andrew Boyd carefully locked the doors to the new location of He said he owns the building and wants to hire additional staff, including many younger employees, but area banks won't give him the loan he needs to renovate.
With unemployment particularly high for young African-American men, Boyd said he does not hesitate to recruit candidates into the barber's trade.
"I was talking to this one young man, and he did not want to go to college," Boyd recalled. "I told his mother, 'Don't throw your money away.' I told him, 'Go to barber college, then come here."
Boyd, an award-winning barber, is proud that his profession has enabled him to support seven children.
"No matter how bad the economy is, people will pay to look good," he said.
Despite being turned down for loans, Boyd said he planned to open at his new location and welcome 25 employees on Aug. 1, "even if I have to do all the work myself."
He estimated at least seven employees are in the 30-and-under age range.
Jewel-Osco management just announced that it’s closing its store in nearby Olympia Fields, and on the lots next to Boyd's new location stand empty buildings that once were filled by the Venice Restaurant and a Popeye’s chicken restaurant.
But Boyd, who is still lugging a briefcase full of credit reports and documentation in hopes of winning the loan, is undeterred.
"Even with the place torn up like this, when people come in here, they see the vision already," he said.
And he made this announcement: "We're still looking for barbers, if somebody wants to apply."