Why 90s Kids Don’t Understand This Kind of Economic Struggle

Source: iStock
Source: iStock

If the current state of the economy and the noticeable lack of pogs and Lee Pipes weren’t enough of an indicator, let’s just put it out there: this is not the 90s anymore. For anyone who has been around long enough to remember, the 90s were a roaring time — the Clinton administration had the economy buzzing, the world was relatively peaceful (compared to the post-9/11 world, anyway), and jobs were plentiful and easy to find. Hell, the U.S. even had a balanced budget at one point.

Clearly, 15-20 years has seen a lot of change.

One very obvious way that we can tell the economic situation in the country has taken a nosedive is by looking at how our recent graduates are faring. Kids pouring out of our high schools and universities are entering the workforce with unmitigated optimism, and it’s hard to fault them for that. But in the wake of the past recession, it’s important to keep our expectations in line.

This has led to an interesting development among college graduates, which was recently explored by researchers at Ohio State University. Essentially, cities are trying to attract skilled workers to their economies. But in order to do so, they need to have vibrant economies already established. It’s created a sort of catch-22 for some areas, who need talented workers to create better economies, but can’t attract them because, well, they lack a good economy in the first place.

“In the 90s, when the economy was booming, college grads just moved to places that were fast-growing, figuring they could find a job,” said Michael Betz, co-author of the study, and assistant professor of human sciences at Ohio State University. “But post-2000, with the national economy not doing so well, graduates have become more risk-averse. They’re moving to the larger cities with more potential jobs.”

In a nutshell, what the Ohio State study is telling us is that the difference between college grads in the 90s and college grads today is that those who entered the workforce in the 90s had the benefit of pursuing jobs that were more in line with their personal interests. That is, they could move to cities in which specific industries were dominant to try and get a job — for example, moving to Los Angeles to get into entertainment, New York for finance, etc.

Today’s graduate is not afforded that luxury. Today’s grads are going to where the biggest labor markets are, so that they can get a job. Any job.

“Local policymakers often believe they can lure more college grads by becoming a hub of high-tech industry or creating a cool arts district,” Betz said. “That’s not what grads are looking for, at least since the downturn in the economy. They’re interested in moving somewhere that has a lot of job opportunities, and that generally means a larger city.”

By this study’s measure, larger cities, with more robust economies and larger labor pools, have an advantage over smaller ones. Again, we come back to the catch-22. Cities want to attract more grads and human capital to improve their economies, but in order to do that, their economies must already be booming. If there’s a real takeaway from Ohio State’s work, it’s that cities may need to focus on attracting industry, rather than new residents that are fresh from walking the stage at graduation.

If that’s worked for any states or cities, at the current time, you’d have to admire the work that states in the Midwest and west have done. Unemployment rates are way down, as low as 2.5% in Nebraska. Those are states, by and large, that have been able to take advantage of the bountiful and valuable natural resources available to them, and open those reserves up to private companies, leading to hiring booms.

So, today’s graduates may need to look at places like Omaha, Bismarck, or Midland to find gainful employment, whereas 90s graduates had options, and could look at places that are traditionally more popular, like New York, or southern California.

Perhaps that’s been the real victim of the current economy — choices. Options for those entering the job market are scarce. They’re better than they were a few years ago, but still scarce. Grads from the 90s may not have realized it at the time, but they may have had it better than any American generation before, or since.

Follow Sam on Twitter @Sliceofginger

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