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Overeducated, Underemployed in 1980s America: Generations Lost in Space

Kindergarten Class 1966

Kindergarten Class 1966

Gen-X Memoir: Overeducated, Underemployed

It was not the life I planned, but the life I feared. Graduating college with loads of debt and job prospects that were no better than what I could have gotten straight out of high school.

I rarely thought of these things during my university years which ran from the mid to late 1980s. Instead, I escaped into my studies, compassionate ministries, student government, and friends. I spent hours in the college library, which makes it very hard to explain the astonishing number of book fines I received. And, so it goes.

Kindergarten Graduation, 1973

Kindergarten Graduation, 1973

And This Is How It Went

And, this is how it went. I read hundreds of books and periodicals, and I wrote dozens of papers. I was mostly bored with formal learning. It was something I tolerated because I could not disappoint my father by failing to graduate. There were two things he demanded from his children: chastity and education.

Every semester I found a new fascination. Sometimes it carried over from one year to the next, and some interests defined my entire college experience. There were semesters I poured over holocaust literature; the 10,000-day war that was Vietnam and Russian Orthodoxy.


Face to face, out in the heat
Hangin’ tough, stayin’ hungry
They stack the odds, still we take to the street
For the kill with the skill to survive

— From Survivor and
Eye of the Tiger
Kindergarten Graduation, 1970s

Kindergarten Graduation, St. Paul’s Lutheran, Garden Grove | 1970s

Overeducated; Astonishing Unemployment Rate in 1988

I wished sometimes I was the kind of person who just went to college and became a nurse or a teacher. But, I couldn’t allow myself to become decidedly anything.

My first job out of college would have been a dream if not a miracle for any of the millions of Chinese working in those iPad factories. They put bars on the windows to prevent the laborers from leaping to their deaths. I was paid 50 cents above minimum wage. A problem anyone in a third world country would love to have.

Still, I went to college and got a degree — something fewer than 7 percent of people in the world have. But, I, along with my Generation X classmates graduated into an economy marked by a sharp rise in joblessness. According to a report from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics in 1988 unemployment rose from 4.8 to 7.9. This trend continued through 1991.

Today, things are much worse for Generation Y. The most educated generation in history must weather mass unemployment.

Kindergarten Graduation, 1973

Kindergarten Graduation, 1973 | via wvclaylady on Flickr with CC License

Lucky Job

So, the office at my first post-college-real-job was air-conditioned. I had my own desk. They told us we were lucky because we could wear Walkmans to work and listen to music on our headphones. I found a station called KTOK and I listened to it all day long.

Monday through Friday stretched on forever like the east side of the Berlin Wall. Endless, imprisoning concrete, painted white for posterity. I watched it all day long and it never dried. Sometimes, we had to work overtime on Saturdays. They said if we didn’t show up we’d be fired. It nearly killed me to work those Saturdays.

Every day was the same. I taped coupons to white pieces of paper so they could be microfilmed. It was a factory job dressed up like a corporette. We were kindly fooled by the low pile carpet and the desks as if we had anything other than tape to put in the drawers. And, our families were fooled. Or maybe sometimes they fooled us into thinking this was a good job.

Degrees of Separation

I quickly learned that in this environment my college degree was a liability. This feeling was familiar to me. I’d worked part-time during college at Little Giant Pump Company. I could never ingratiate myself to the gum-chewing, cigarette wielding women who wore men’s clothes to work. I might as well have been wearing a tiara. If only they’d known how poor I’d been. How poor I was.

I don’t know why I thought I needed their acceptance.

And, oh, I netted $60 less a week at that part-time, real factory job than I did working full-time at the corporate job.

And it won’t matter now
Whatever happens to me
Though the air speaks of all we’ll never be
It won’t trouble me

— From Toad the Wet Sprocket and
All I Want

Generation X: Drunk and Laid

Every day, my fellow office-factory workers — young women just like me – talked about getting drunk and getting laid. They seemed miserably content with their weekend prison passes. They’d plan weekend trips to the lake and negotiate who would bring the beer. Even though I was lonely, I never said more than a few words to any of them. I was afraid if we became friends I might be sucked into accepting this job as my lot in life.

Teenage Wasteland

This time was like the Great Teenage Wasteland. The summers when I was 14 and 15 when I was too young to get a job and there was nothing to do except eat, watch soap operas, and volunteer at VBS. I’d wait all summer for church camp to roll around.

Shaking hands with Governor Walters | TAFB, 1991

Shaking hands with Governor Walters | TAFB, 1991

I Quit

It’s a wonder that I didn’t run screaming out of that office complex every day at 5 p.m. And, then one day, I did something I didn’t see coming. I walked into my boss’s office, which was a desk in a fishbowl, and I told him I quit.

He asked me why and I told him because I wanted to work for Governor Walters. It was the most ridiculous, far-reaching thing I could have said at the time, but that is what I told him. He asked me if I had a job lined up and I told him, no. Funny, he didn’t judge me and marveled at my escape.

I never went to work for Governor Walters. I never even tried. But, I met him about a year later, a few months after I’d gone to work as a writer in the public affairs office at a military installation. Today, we’re Facebook friends, a commentary on the times.

In Summary

During the spring semester of 1987, I read 30 books from the shelf of holocaust literature. Among them was the story of Martin Gray. Through sheer determination, he prevailed over Treblinka, a death camp. I have prevailed over far, far less, but that book meant a lot to me. I wrote a paper about it for a class taught by a visiting Jewish professor, the rabbi of a local Oklahoma City synagogue. When Rabbi Packman returned my paper to me, he’d written at the top, “Brilliant summary, but you said nothing about the will to survive.” 

Generations Lost in Space

Below is a video created last year by Amy Langdon and Nicholas Padiak. It’s about Generation Y being overeducated and underemployed in America.

A Generation Lost in Space: Overeducated and Underemployed in America from Nick Padiak on Vimeo.

Gen X Blog Jennifer Chronicles

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  1. Rose Byrd

    Somehow, we need to get back to simple work, hand-to-mouth, as it were!

  2. yogiabb

    Tell you what, 1988 was a bad year nationally for the USA but it really sucked big time in Oklahoma. I had 55 guys working for me in western Oklahoma. Some of the hardest working guys I’ve ever been around, and may of them were on the WIC (Women and Infant Children) Nutrition Supplement program so they could feed their families.

  3. Andi Fisher

    It is always good to flex our creative muscle! Now that I understand where you are going, I get it! It like freestyle prose….actually I don’t know why I feel a need to label it, I loved it, I just was hoping I wasn’t missing anything. I like the fact that I have “known” you for 4 years and still learning about you!

  4. Jennifer

    LOL! *Big Smiles* It’s definitely a different style of writing. I’ve been reading Generacion Y, Yoani’s Sanchez’s amazing blog for a long time. I’ve studied her style and am inspired by how she writes about major events in her life with out the drudgery of all the backside information. Her posts are often a jolt out of nowhere and I love the permission she gives herself to write in this way. So much of my blog is a laboratory — for photography, for PR and social media — to sharpen these swords or keep them sharp. I have not used it to hone my writing skills like I should have. So, I want to do that more. I’m no Yoani Sanchez. My gosh, the woman is amazing. There will always only be one Yoani. But, I do like writing memoirs. So, to answer your question, there is no bottom line on this post. It is a story I never shared with anyone until now and I wanted to capture the nuance of that time. OKC was very different then. I appreciate that it escaped you b/c it was something totally new; an exercise in remembering and storytelling and revealing parts of myself and my life nobody knew. {{{{xoxo}}}

  5. Andi Fisher

    Jen, is this post a string of consciousness? I love all the individual stories, but the bottomline is escaping me and I am feeling like I am missing your point and I don’t want to! After the first year of college I knew hated college and could not wait to begin working in the real world. I was in the Bay Area at that time which has always had a good job market so I was lucky to find a really good job while I was still in school and that worked into a string of jobs that have managed to keep a roof over my head. But I feel for the current generation of kids looking for work because it is so bleak. I also think about the time coming not too far down the road when people will think I am old at work and wondering how they can replace me with someone fresh. I know this because I sometimes think it of others and it is so not fair…

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