American dream of Generation Y unravels

Careers that once were gateways to high pay have turned into detours and dead ends as the nation's younger workers face a lifetime of depressed income.

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 03: People wait in line at a job fair sponsored by State Senator Jose R. Peralta and Elmcor Youth and Adult Activities on May 3, 2012 in the Queens borough of New York City. Representatives of over 60 companies met job seekers that numbered over one thousand. The Labor Department announced Thursday that weekly unemployment benefit applications fell 27,000 last week to a seasonally adjusted 365,000.   Spencer Platt/Getty Images/AFP== FOR NEWSPAPERS, INTERNET, TELCOS & TELEVISION USE ONLY ==

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After being dismissed from her job as a midtown Manhattan securities attorney in October 2009, Christina Tretter-Herriger hitched a used horse trailer to her Dodge Ram pickup and drove 1,628 miles to Texas.

The 32-year-old lawyer sold skincare products in Houston before finding work as the assistant general counsel of a futures-trading firm where an irate customer punctuated a recorded voicemail message with gunfire.

Eighteen months and two busted jobs later, the daughter of a retired physician and a former editor at Vogue circled back to upstate New York and hunkered down at a small legal office that pays about a quarter of her former US$165,000 (Dh606,045) salary.

Generation Y professionals entering the US workforce are finding careers that once were gateways to high pay and upwardly mobile lives turning into detours and dead ends. Average incomes for individuals aged 25 to 34 have fallen 8 per cent, double the adult population's total drop, since the recession began in December 2007.

Three and a half years after the worst recession since the Great Depression, the earnings and employment gap between those in the under-35 population and their parents and grandparents threatens to unravel the American dream of each generation doing better than the last. The nation's younger workers have benefited least from an economic recovery that has been the most uneven in recent history.

"This generation will be permanently depressed and will be on a lower path of income for probably all of their life - and at least the next 10 years," says Cliff Zukin, a Rutgers professor and senior research fellow at the university's John J Heldrich Center for Workforce Development. Professionals who start out in jobs other than their first choice tend to stay on the alternative path, earning less than they would have otherwise while becoming less likely to start over again later in preferred fields, Mr Zukin says.

Michael Greenstone, who was the chief economist at the White House Council of Economic Advisers in 2009 and 2010, says the shift to a downwardly mobile society may be lasting. "Children are not earning as much as their parents, and I think we're laying the seeds for that to continue into the future," he says.

Only a fifth of those who graduated college since 2006 expect greater success than their parents, a Rutgers survey found this year.

Middle-income jobs are disappearing for a wide range of young professionals. The number of financial counsellors and loan officers aged 25 to 34 has dropped 40 per cent since 2007, outpacing the 30 per cent drop in total jobs for the profession, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Similarly, the number of hours logged by first-year and midlevel legal associates - a productivity measure of young lawyers - fell 12 per cent from 2007 at some of New York's largest law firms, says Jeff Grossman, the national managing director of Wells Fargo Private Bank's Legal Specialty Group in Charlotte, North Carolina.

"I had a lot of faith in the system, the mythology that if you work really hard you can achieve anything, and the stock market always goes up," says 2009 law school graduate Elizabeth Hallock, 33. "It was pretty naive on my part."

She is the named plaintiff in one of 14 lawsuits against some of the nation's best-known law schools, including her alma mater, the University of San Francisco School of Law. The civil complaints, filed in 2011 and 2012, accuse the institutions of overstating graduates' job-placement results and incomes.

Young Americans are struggling to reconcile their lack of economic rewards with their relatively privileged upbringings by baby-boomer parents and the material success of their older peers, Generation X, born in the late 1960s and 1970s, says Kathy Sheehan, the general manager of GfK Consumer Trends and Roper Reports, a unit of German-based research firm GfK.

"It's a generation that had really high expectations, in some part driven by the way they were raised by their boomer parents," she says. "Yet in the past five years they have had reality slammed in their face by the employment situation."

In more traditional jobs, the fallout from the subprime-mortgage collapse a half-decade ago continues to pummel people, including the architects who designed homes. The number of them aged 25 to 34 has fallen by 41 per cent since 2007, compared with the total drop in the profession of 25 per cent.

Ms Tretter-Herriger joined Manhattan law firm Curtis, Mallet-Prevost, Colt & Mosle LLP in September 2008, the same month that Lehman Brothers collapsed, gradually setting off panic on Wall Street and around the world.

The late nights and long weeks awaited by first-year associates didn't come. Ms Tretter-Herriger says she and some other first-year associates were fired 13 months later with the proviso they could keep their desks and look for jobs through October. She found one at the Houston futures trading firm. When it later outsourced some of its legal work, she moved on again to a job in Buffalo, New York.

She now complements her $45,000 lawyer's salary by training horses and giving riding lessons. She says she'd like to buy a rental property and become self-sufficient in case she loses this job.

"As it is, all of my possessions still fit in the back of my lorry," she says. "I can pack it in a couple hours, pick up the trailer and horses and move anywhere the gas tank will take me at the drop of a hat. What can the system take away from you when you have that kind of freedom?"

* Bloomberg News