During our conversation, she sounded chipper, idealistic, and practical, even though her mother could not find work and her father was serving time in prison. She’d learned lessons from all of this, she said, especially the importance of earning a college degree and starting early to think about a real career: lessons reinforced every hour she sat at the reception desk at the unemployment office.
“It just makes me want to get on with my life and further my education, so I don’t have to go through the same thing,” she says. “The more education people have, the easier is it to get jobs.”
This tracks with the employment data about the Great Recession. Although the overall jobless rate remains high (higher than any politician would like), education marks a clear dividing line. People without college degrees suffer from an unemployment rate twice as high as those with bachelor’s degrees, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In August, I traveled to Florida to meet Tessa and Dasia in person. Dasia greeted me at the front desk of FloridaWorks; she wore neatly pressed mustard-colored pants and a bright ruffled top; the ends of her hair were curled.
We sat in an office to catch up, where Dasia again talked about her plans for community college and the Air Force. She was doing OK with money, too. Since she was 14, she has worked some type of after-school or seasonal job, socking away half of each paycheck and opting for free activities (such as going to the community pool or basketball games with friends). Her mother was still looking for a job and planned to go back to school in the fall to further her nursing career.
But Dasia revealed a development, a serious one, that she hadn’t when we first talked. Minutes into our conversation, she told me she was pregnant. It had been an unplanned result of her relationship with her on-again, off-again boyfriend from middle school.
She said she was due in late November. Her 38-year-old mother was not happy. “I guess she was disappointed because I’m kind of young. She wishes that I waited until I was more stable in life and got to do more, but eventually, she came around,” Dasia says.
She seemed excited and a little unsure about the baby, yet also adamant that being a mother would not change the career trajectory she had carefully planned. Infant and all, Dasia said, she could still earn her bachelor’s degree and join the military—even with her boyfriend, child, and mom as baby sitter in tow.
“It’s easy for people to say things and not stick to them. I have a plan to better myself and my life,” she said that day, as rain from a late-summer thunderstorm pelted the office windows.
Dasia gave me a tour of the career center, with its help-wanted ads and cubicles of job counselors. Isn’t it depressing coming to work every day, surrounded by so many people who are struggling, I asked?
Dasia thought for a second and leaned against the wall, with her baby bump slightly protruding. “No, it’s not depressing,” she says. “A lot of people come in on their own will. Some people just really need help.”
LESSONS FROM THE PAST
So little is known about this new shadow generation, in part because the economic and sociological data just haven’t kept pace. Most of the information about children of the unemployed is based on data from the 1980s—the last big post-industrial economic downturn.
That’s when a 29-year-old single mother named Kathryn Crumpton lost her job as a social worker in central Minnesota after a grant that funded her organization ran out. With jobs scarce in the area and with no child support from her daughter’s father, Crumpton and her 7-year-old daughter moved in with her parents. “We would have honestly been homeless during that time period if my parents hadn’t been able to provide a place for us to live,” she remembers.
Crumpton took a job selling insurance on commission for Prudential. She worked nights, while her parents watched her daughter. It took more than four years for the family to financially recover from the hit—to move into their own home and for Crumpton to find a better-paying job in a different field at a savings and loan.
Her daughter, now the mother of two, didn’t want to talk on the record for this story. But Crumpton recalls that, at the time, her child “didn’t seem to realize the extent of what was going on—that her mom was unemployed and hanging out.”
Yet, the lessons from that 1980s recession shaped the family’s dynamic for years to come, as it could with Tessa and Dasia. Crumpton urged her daughter to work throughout college so she could avoid taking on student loans. She encouraged her to study science rather than social work or liberal arts, thinking that would give her daughter a more stable career path. Now, her daughter works in Wisconsin as a lab supervisor; she’s been there for 15 years since graduating with a biology degree in 1997.