By Jana Kasperkevic
James Thomas is trying to start 2017 with a sense of optimism. It isn’t easy: the unemployed 26-year-old from Pittsburgh was laid off on November 11, and still hasn’t found a new job.
“Unemployment benefits have helped. The time of year—Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year—was difficult, but things are better than expected so far,” he said.
Thomas, who studied software sales and has a degree in marketing, is casting a wide net for jobs in sales, marketing, project management and real estate, but hasn’t had many nibbles.
“I still don’t have a job, and finances are still tighter than my ass in skinny jeans, but for the first time in a while I am optimistic,” he wrote in a Medium post. “By the end of 2017, I am confident that I will be in a much better place than I am now.”
He’s not alone in his sunny outlook. According to the most recent jobs report, about 905,000 people opted to leave their jobs in December, up from 817,000 a year ago, indicating that the population is more optimistic about finding a new job. One reason for this has been the decrease in the unemployment rate, which was down to 4.7 percent in December. That month was the 75th straight that the U.S. had added jobs, making this the longest streak of job creation in the U.S. history.
While this indicates a U.S. job market in recovery, many remain skeptical of what 2017 will bring now that Donald Trump is in office.
Thomas is among them. “I don’t feel Trump will be good for the economy, which will in turn hurt job growth. I am sincerely hoping that I am wrong about that, though,” he said.
Alexis Van Billiard is another Trump skeptic: the 24-year-old graduated in 2014 with a degree in environmental policy and economics, but recently lost her job as office manager doing data entry for a company in eastern Pennsylvania. She’s also spent the last two months looking for work.
“It’s hard for me to see [Trump] as being beneficial to the country, although that’s entirely possible. I know that I am very biased,” she admits. “I hope that he can do a lot for the economy and bring a lot of the jobs back, but especially being part of the environment field, it just doesn’t seem good for me.” On Monday, Axios reported that the Trump camp plans to halt the Environmental Protection Agency’s funding of scientific research, among other plans to cut agency spending and regulation.
Though, like Thomas, Van Billiard is open to nearly any potential employment, she’s been hard-pressed to find anything that would pay a liveable wage.
“Unfortunately a lot of things are just bare minimum, and I have insane student loan bills,” she said, noting that her debt load is $85,000. “It’s hard to find anything that will pay for that, plus other bills. I still live with my parents so I don’t even have rent.”
Living at home to make ends meet is common among millennials. In 2015, according to a study by real estate company Trulia, as many as 40 percent of young Americans were living with their families. And, even as the overall unemployment rate dropped, recent graduates have continued to struggle to find their footing in the post-recession job market. Men in their early 20s currently face an unemployment rate of 9.2 percent; for women, that number is seven percent. Meanwhile, the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute estimates that 1 in 8 recent college graduates are underemployed—either employed part time or or jobs below their skill- or pay-levels.
Trump himself is among those who aren’t convinced that the widely-used unemployment rate is any indication that the economy is getting better. “The unemployment number, as you know, is totally fiction,” he said in December. “If you look for a job for six months and then you give up, they consider you given up. You just give up. You go home. You say, ‘Darling, I can’t get a job.’ They consider you statistically employed.”
Trump and other Republicans prefer instead to reference the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ U-6 “underemployment” rate, which counts all Americans who want jobs but cannot find them, instead of the unemployment rate. The underemployment rate is, by design, higher than the more general measure of unemployment.
But underemployment is down, too: In December 2016, the underemployment rate dropped to 9.2 percent from 9.9 percent in December 2015. In December 2009, the underemployment had reached 17.1 percent.
Still, recovery isn’t coming to all states equally. The unemployment rate in Pennsylvania, where Thomas and Van Billiard live, has been trailing the national average. In November, the state’s unemployment rate was 5.7 percent, compared to 4.6 percent on the national level. According to Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the gap between the two is the biggest since 1980s. (Other political swing states that voted for Trump—Ohio (4.9 percent), Michigan (4.9 percent), Florida (4.9 percent) and Wisconsin (4.1 percent)— are better off, job-wise.)
Trump has promised to bring steel mill and coal mine jobs back to the region in order to “Make America Great Again”—despite questions about whether that’s truly possible in 2017, his withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement notwithstanding. But when millennials are nearly twice as likely to have college degrees as the so-called “Greatest Generation,” heavy manufacturing jobs are hardly the employment opportunities for which millennials are clamoring.
Thomas and Van Billiard, and others like them, may be striving for economic optimism in 2017, but the economic populism preached by the new president could nonetheless leave them out in the cold—or, at least part of the underemployed generation that Trump promised to help.