Burton: 2020 Graduates Are at Risk of Becoming Discouraged Workers


Graduation ceremony at the University of Utah in 2011. Chronicle archives.

By Logan Burton, Opinion Writer


Graduation lacked some of its typical joy and excitement for the class of 2020, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. In lieu of the traditional commencement, graduates took part in this crowning event through the humble means of a computer screen—and, to compound this feeling of anti-climax, many now face the terrible reality of a barely active labor market. Even before the virus prompted widespread economic shutdowns, many graduates were already facing rising student debt and other concerns. However, the virus has only made these issues all the more urgent and stressful. As these stressors mount on graduates, the consequences of their discouragement can hurt the economy tremendously.

A New Generation of Discouraged Workers

Unemployment is problematic not only for individuals but for the economy as a whole. High rates of joblessness mean the economy isn’t running as fast or efficiently as it can. However, unemployment data indicate only a fraction of the challenges facing the class of 2020. Most published unemployment figures do not account for discouraged workers, people looking for work who have become hopeless and quit searching altogether.

Even in more tranquil times, looking for work fresh out of college is a stressful experience. But now that the economy is facing a dramatic recession, the pressure is much greater. How are graduates going to pay for their heavy student loans? Where can they find jobs that can pay even a sliver of the debt, not to mention other expenses? Likely, their job search will be longer than usual, sharply increasing their risk of discouragement. Eventually, some may even put off searching for a job indefinitely. Again, this is detrimental for both the graduate—whose newfound skills will deteriorate as they are left unused or underutilized in a job outside their field of study—and the economy, which loses a considerable portion of GDP with each discouraged graduate. Additionally, since discouraged workers are often skipped over in government statistics, they may be overlooked by policymakers who can assist them.

Insiders versus Outsiders

Discouragement among new graduates doesn’t simply end after a recession—it will continue as the economy recovers. As businesses begin to recoup, they will tend to rehire their former employees and others with previous industry experience. This phenomenon, known as the Insider-Outsider theory, explains why some industries are so hard to enter. It is cheaper for many companies to hire those with whom they are already familiar, crowding outsiders, or those who have never been in the field, out of the field. Recent college graduates will be the most prominent outsiders looking for work, but companies in the high-skill industries where most graduates apply are seeking elsewhere. Graduates may be bitterly disappointed that their hard-earned degrees get such small returns on investment.

Lessening the Weight of Post-Graduation Challenges

In the throes of the pandemic, there’s little colleges or businesses can do to improve post-graduate life—but with the threat of discouraged graduates dropping out of the workforce, the demand for assistance is greater than ever. Thankfully, lawmakers are considering ways to alleviate the weight of these concerns. Debt forgiveness policies are gaining more and more traction, especially among Democrats. Canceling student loans would remove a considerable stressor for new graduates and ultimately motivate them to continue the job search.

While debt forgiveness will likely remain in deliberation for a while on the national level, in Utah, financial assistance is closer than we expect. Even before the coronavirus became severe in the states, Governor Herbert proposed a tuition freeze that will now be in place for the next year at the University of Utah. Though not as dramatic as debt forgiveness programs, tuition freezes can be helpful for students to plan financially for graduation without any surprises. No matter what the solution may be, it should not only address the financial situation of graduates but their emotional states as well. Discouragement and the delay it causes for young adults entering the workforce creates far too great an opportunity cost for both graduates and the economy.

Graduates of 2020 face a massively struggling labor market because of the COVID-19 crisis. What should have been a time of celebration and excitement for them is rather one of great financial uncertainty. It will be crucial for these graduates to avoid becoming discouraged and dropping out of the labor market. The efforts of students to earn a degree and training have cost so much—it would be a shame for them (and a hit to the national economy) to miss out on the profits.


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