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Everything You Need to Understand About Underemployment

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When I graduated with my PhD in English four years ago, I was most concerned about not finding a job at all. I was so worried about unemployment that I didn’t realize I might face another problem entirely: underemployment.

In the years leading up to that moment, I’d done everything in my power to pursue a career in academic publishing. In addition to my prior office experience, I’d held three internships, regularly attended conferences to meet with editors, and kept up with scholarship on several topics. Sure, the industry’s competitive. But I believed my education and experience would help me not just break in but accelerate past entry-level.

Two months after I graduated, I finally landed an interview with a press. Yes, just one. When they offered me an entry-level role as an assistant editor, I didn’t think twice. I took the job and tried not to panic about my looming student loan debt, especially when I learned I’d be making less than I had before grad school. I was grateful to have something, but it was hard to shake the disappointment. I felt embarrassed, like there must be something wrong with me if I couldn’t find a job on par with my qualifications.

Underemployment 101 What’s Underemployment?

Underemployment isn’t a new phenomenon. According to Doug Maynard, a psychology professor at SUNY New Paltz and co-editor of Underemployment: Psychological, Economic and Social Challenges, the term refers to a few different types of employment: holding a part-time or contract role but preferring something full-time; earning less than you typically would with your education and experience; or being overqualified for your current position.

Between 1990 and 2012, about a third of college graduates aged 25-65 were working in jobs that don’t require a degree at any given time. Even more concerning, 44% of recent college graduates ages 22 to 27 were affected by the trend in 2012.

Underemployment hasn’t been studied as often as unemployment because it’s a more subjective experience, says Maynard. There’s still quite a lot researchers don’t know, but what they do is telling. For starters, people tend to experience the same symptoms as those who are unemployed—low self-esteem and self-worth, poor health, aggressive behaviors, and even alcohol and drug abuse as a means to cope with their bleak situations.

Underemployment 101 What’s it Like to Be Underemployed?

Being underemployed affects everyone differently, but it’s no surprise that many become discouraged about their sub-par job prospects. A New York executive video producer with 15 years of experience describes the feeling well. “I know I have a lot to offer and I feel as if I did everything right—attended a top journalism school, worked hard and moved wherever my job took me before finally settling in New York and working countless hours just to get to where I am,” she says. But full-time roles have been hard to find. “It doesn’t feel right to make an income that’s not reflective of my experience.”

And the economic consequences can be lasting. Not only do you tend to make less as a result of being underemployed (what researchers call “wage penalties”), but it can also be really hard to break out of that cycle. People can remain underemployed for years because they don’t get the same opportunities to develop their skills or advance in their career. Even once you find full-time employment, playing catch up can take time.

An MFA graduate who wanted to teach full-time cobbled together a living by working as an adjunct professor at two universities while also bartending. But she quickly found it was too much to juggle.

“It was awful,” she tells me. “I was depressed, I was overwhelmed, I couldn't keep up with all of my responsibilities, and all of my relationships suffered, contributing to more isolation and more onus to somehow fix things, in ways I couldn't figure out.” Even now that she’s found a full-time position, she says, “I still have to bartend one night a week to catch up on my debt, never mind build savings or retirement.”

Unfortunately, with the rise of the gig economy and other more temporary means of employment, Maynard tells The Muse that “this new reality is not likely to change anytime soon.”

Underemployment 101 What Can You Do to Deal With Underemployment?

1. Talk About It

As the producer and professor both reminded me, there’s a prevailing silence around underemployment because people feel embarrassed or are afraid they’ll be ostracized in their industries for speaking up. I know I didn’t want to write about it for fear that my press would find out.

But talking about it can help. It did for me: When I spoke to my family and close friends about my circumstances, I released that sense of shame I’d been carrying around. If you’d rather connect with people who are also dealing with underemployment, try joining or forming a local in-person support group or an online community.

The important thing is to remember that you’re not alone, and starting a dialogue about it could help you and so many others who are in similar situations.

2. Look for Value

Being underemployed makes it much easier to develop negative attitudes about work. So try making a list of all the ways your work has value beyond the paycheck and title.

Maynard advises telling yourself, “Yes, I’m overqualified right now, but I can see that the work that I do has an impact on customers or clients or even other people in the workplace—that my job is pivotal in helping other people be productive in their work.”

You might have to dig deep, but make sure you find or create meaning that will help you survive this period.

3. Learn to Be Flexible About What Success Looks Like

Like many people around me, I viewed full-time employment as the gold standard when it came to career success. But that’s quickly changing with the rise of the gig economy and other arrangements.

Remind yourself to be flexible about what success looks like, and feel free to create your own definition. Maybe your yawn-inducing office job supports your passion project outside of work, or maybe the freedom of a non-traditional schedule allows you flexibility to attend that afternoon workshop you’ve been wanting to try.

Most work involves some kind of tradeoff, so figure out how what you’re doing now is allowing you to achieve a different kind of success or setting you up to achieve the kind of success you want for yourself one day.

4. Build Relationships With Current Employers and Network Outside of Work

If you don’t like what you’re doing at the moment, building relationships could be the key to unlock new opportunities—within your current company or beyond.

After working as an adjunct for four years at one university, the professor finally landed a full-time position. “I almost feel like I [won] the lottery because there just aren't jobs here in my field that have benefits,” she says. Although it took time, she was able to prove herself and get to know the right people in ways she wouldn’t have been able to as an outside candidate.

If sticking it out doesn’t seem worthwhile, find networking happy hours within your industry or age group. Beyond that, find people at the career level you’d like to be (mid-, senior-, etc.) and request informational interviews. If advancement comes down in large part to who you know, then you can start by working on who you know.

5. Consider a Career Change

Underemployment may be a chance—even if it’s not one you sought out—to rethink what you’re doing and where you’re doing it. If you’re underemployed and advancement seems impossible, consider exploring new career options. Maybe your skill set is actually a perfect fit for another role in your industry or another industry entirely where there might be more opportunity.

Writing was my passion project—the thing I did on the side—until I decided to invest in it full-time and leave publishing. The digital media and communications skills I gained helped me become a top candidate for my current role writing digital content for a university. Although it’s not what I’d imagined myself doing, I’ve never been happier. Looking back I can see how every step helped me get closer to making this transition. But being flexible was key.

Underemployment has real and damaging effects. I spent four frustrated, demoralizing years trying to break out of the cycle. But it is possible—whether that means landing your dream job or finding a way to take your skill set with you on a new path. Either way, make sure you take care of yourself in the meantime.