People expect to see a 300-pound Bulgarian man with no neck when they open the door to greet the mover. Instead, he’s a lithe hipster with a penchant for Chaucer.
By day, recent college graduate Sam works for a highly regarded media company in a major metropolitan area. We’ve changed his name and omitted other identifying details. That’s because by night, he and his roommates run an unlicensed moving company out of the loft they share in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood.
It’s not something that would go over well with his editors. But he earns in one night hauling boxes what he makes in a week at his white-collar desk job. And Sam likes the flexibility. Take jobs when you want them, turn them down when you don’t. Answer to no one.
But he doesn’t do it so he has extra cash to blow at trendy bars. He needs the money to pay his rent.
When Rachel Rubin got the call in 2011 that she’d been chosen to intern at the White House, she was ecstatic.
She’d graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign that spring, moved home to a suburb northwest of Chicago, and started work at a Jewish nonprofit. But she dropped everything to move to Washington, D.C. and work unpredictable hours at an unpaid internship. She knew, even $30,000 deep in student loan debt, it was her shot at launching the public service career she’d always wanted.
By most accounts, Rubin is a success story. While she’s no longer in the West Wing, she used her six-month press internship to land a job at the Commerce Department, then jumped to the Department of Health and Human Services, where she worked on the Affordable Care Act implementation team. Rubin recently transitioned to a job in the private sector.
But it took a loan deferral, pre-dawn bus rides from her sister’s place in Silver Spring, and lots of cheap meals to make it happen. Rubin had blown through nearly every penny she’d saved from her time at the nonprofit by the time she started at Commerce.
And she isn’t alone. In fact she and Sam are part of what’s become a growing class of people in the United States: the white-collar working poor.
They’re not the children of the wealthy and well-connected, but they’re also not the children of the poor and neglected. They come from working-class, sometimes immigrant, families. Their parents wanted better lives for them, so they went to college and pursued prestigious internships. These are the strivers, the kids who supposedly did everything right, pulled themselves up by their proverbial bootstraps and should’ve landed solidly in the middle class.
Instead, they were victims of their families’ modest success. They didn’t qualify for sufficient need-based scholarship money, and lacking any family experience with universities, they often didn’t have much guidance when it came to the college or job application processes. So where merit-based scholarships weren’t available, and they seldom were, they paid full-retail for their education with borrowed money, and they are now struggling to navigate student aid lenders and terms.
Even when these strivers pursue degrees that lead to decent-paying jobs, they sometimes struggle to make ends meet, because they’re pigeonholed into living in expensive cities and required to be on call at all hours. Rubin had to be in DC, one of the nation’s most expensive towns, to do her job — and there was no time, let alone a set schedule, for a second job.
It may seem outrageous for college-educated Americans to complain about landing highly coveted jobs in elite professions in some of the world’s great cities. And that’s part of the problem: In the U.S.’s political and economic wars, the white-collar working poor’s plight takes a backseat to “real” working-class issues.
But this is not just a millennial sob story: It is a harbinger of the American middle class’ erosion, with dire long-term economic consequences. These strivers might want to buy houses, but they’re not saving money and can’t afford the down payment. And they rarely stay with one company for decades like their parents did. They jump, like Rubin, from place to place to advance, which can make buying a home unrealistic. The traditional enticements to staying in one job for 30 years — seasonal bonuses, expansive family medical coverage, guaranteed safety nets in retirement — are virtually unheard of today. The only shot they have at retirement is to sock away cash from work into risky 401Ks, and they can seldom afford to spare any paycheck money.
The white-collar poor’s work often requires additional expenses and commitments like smartphone plans and costly commutes that contribute to their inability to stay afloat, much less save for retirement.
And they’re flummoxed when they look around in their offices and realize that many of their role models and peers, talented though they may be, had help from well-off families and elite connections.
Sam knows that feeling. Everyone at his college seemed to come from money. And his office “can feel like a Yale coterie,” he said.
Sam didn’t grow up in a poor family. But he also didn’t spend childhood summers in the Hamptons. And that’s part of the problem: He, like so many of his peers, falls somewhere in between.
That middle zone used to be an oasis; now it can feel like no-man’s land.
Sam has a respectable job that prices him out of government assistance, which he would be loath to take anyway. He followed the rules, got a degree from a good school on scholarship and got a career; he shouldn’t have to rely on help. But he’d be struggling without the moving job, and he’s certainly not saving money for retirement or a place of his own.
He’s also left competing for jobs and recognition in an industry that rewards connections and credentials. Sam doesn’t have that built-in network the way kids like Gus Wenner do. Wenner’s father, the founder of Rolling Stone, appointed him editor of the magazine’s website last spring, shortly after he graduated from Brown University.
Sam was left trolling for freelancing work after graduation, a classic catch-22. No one gets good gigs until they’ve made a name for themselves, but you can’t make a name for yourself without the gigs.
Anthony Martinez knows the importance of establishing yourself. But he also knows the cost. Martinez, who graduated in May from American University, racked up an impressive array of internships during his time in the nation’s capital. But they’ve come at a price. Only one was paid; most were for academic credit. To get credit and take a full course load, which he needed to do to graduate on time, he had to go over the school’s credit limit, which meant paying thousands of dollars extra to make his unpaid internship legal.
In some ways, that’s why the moving company is a breath of fresh air to Sam. It “attracts people with artistic ambition,” regardless of where they go to school, which internships or jobs they’ve had, or their pedigree.
It seems to him like “part of a weird shift.”
White-collar workers are taking labor jobs to fill the gap between income and living expenses that paper pushers a generation ago didn’t have to worry about filling. They’re also “moving back to the hood” in rapid waves of gentrification, Sam said. He thinks the idea that there is massive youth unemployment is also misrepresented. He’s seeing more and more of his peers take under-the-table jobs like his moving gig to make ends meet.
It’s exhausting, physical work. And he can’t climb a career ladder or access things like health benefits and 401Ks working for an unlicensed company.
So where does he go from here? The answer’s not clear, so he’s treading. But that will only last so long.
It’s true that these people earn more than their parents, but only in absolute terms. It costs more money to live now than it did half a century ago and where a single income was standard, it frequently takes two today. There are, consequently, added costs like childcare and multiple cars.
That’s if those who desire the traditional path even make it that far. Young people are more likely than their parents to delay marriage and babies, burdened in a way previous generations weren’t by the idea that they have to have it all “figured out” first, and by a reluctance to saddle a spouse with lingering loan debt.
Some are so stressed out, they’ve sought refuge underground, at Underearners Anonymous.
Like Alcoholics Anonymous, the members of this next-generation group are a varied bunch, united by the fact that they're not where they feel they should be in life. Some lost their jobs in the recession and are struggling to rebound. Others earn $200,000 per year, but fear that they will run out of money in the future. The program was created to help people, from bankers to freelance writers, face those fears and learn how to tackle them.
One attendee wrote in Harper’s Magazine that, “Given that there’s a lot of real poverty in the United States, I was sure I’d be exposed as an employed, debt-free fraud and booted from the proceedings. As it turned out, the underearners were a diverse coalition.”
There are many complications and challenges for the white-collar working poor, but one much-discussed spectre rises above all the others: the swelling student-debt bubble. A majority of students, more than ever before, now rely on some form of federal aid to help pay for college. And the playing field is going from unequal to even less equal. While nearly 40 percent of students from families earning less than $20,000 per year received scholarship money from colleges, so did 38 percent of students from families making more than $100,000, up five percent from just four years ago. One recent survey also suggests that people with debt are more likely to miss out on networking opportunities.
Nii-Quartelai Quartey, 29, grew up the youngest of five kids in Concord, California.
“I was very involved and got good grades,” he recalled during a phone interview from Los Angeles recently. “But that wasn’t enough to really get you a merit-based scholarship.”
So his parents, who had both worked blue-collar jobs at Chevron for decades, told him he’d have to take out loans when he was admitted to the University of Southern California, known for both its academic excellence and hefty price tag.
That was nothing to be ashamed of, they said. Their generation had taken out loans, gone to school, graduated and paid them off. Quartey was a bright kid; he could do the same.
And to an 18-year-old that sounded reasonable enough.
But more than a decade later, it sounds like a pipe dream. A political science degree from USC and a master’s from Pepperdine University put him more than $100,000 in the hole and he’s still nowhere near the surface.
He recalled a friend asking, “The what?” when he told her FAFSA forms were due.
“That’s when it occurred to me there are different tracks people are on,” he said, “and I didn’t begrudge the fact that her parents were able to pay tuition but there’s an awareness that for some people, it feels like success is a little more pre-wired.”
Quartey landed a job as a field representative for one of the Los Angeles school board members after graduation, a job he found fulfilling and impactful.
He made just $35,000 that first year, before taxes. Things got better and soon he was making $40,000, then $45,000. But no matter how hard he worked or how far he climbed, he was never going to outpace his debt.
There’s been a dramatic shift over the past several decades in terms of the implications of taking out student loans.
“I didn’t think back then that I was making a life decision with such long-term impact,” he said. It wasn’t something his parents’ generation was all-consumed with. The cost of college was manageable.
Now he’s in consulting. It’s more lucrative but he still expects to finish paying off his loans when his children are teenagers. Those kids? They don’t even exist yet.
That’s not an accident; it’s a calculated reality. Quartey, who is gay, would like to settle down with his partner and start a family. But he’s not sure he can saddle the guy with so much debt in good conscious. He can’t afford the ring he thinks his partner deserves or the house he’d like to own.
So he rents a condo in the Larchmont area and pays his landlord about what he pays his lenders each month. And children? Forget saving for their hypothetical college education; he’s still paying off his own.
“It’s the lack of flexibility and the lack of predictability in terms of what my responsibility is that makes it difficult to make other long-term financial decisions,” he said.
While his federal loan terms aren’t always easy to understand, they’re relatively firm. But he wasn’t offered enough to cover the cost of college and he also had to turn to private lenders who don’t always play straight. Right now, he’s on a 15-month fixed payment schedule, but that could change and his lenders could jack up the payment amount, he said.
“Oftentimes, borrowers are pegged as folks who run up credit card debt and don’t want to pay it and that’s not how I feel,” he added. “I’m not trying to avoid anything. I’m just looking for flexibility and a realistic payment schedule.”
Even as he nears 30, his former USC classmates and other consultants have moms and dads who can pick up the phone and “suddenly a job offer appears,” he said. Their parents or grandparents subsidize their living expenses, and they don’t have loans weighing them down.
“Sometimes I just think, ‘What is that life like?’” he said.
Quartey is also cognizant of the fact that there will shortly come a time when his mother (his father is deceased) will need to lean on him for support.
“I’ve got to be in a position to take that on,” he said.
How can he do that when student debt has made carving his own life so difficult?
He’s not sure, but says lawmakers need to make it a focus because it’s an issue that’s stalling an entire generation of workers who are trying to do the right thing.
“I think,” he said, “it’s now a moral issue.”
Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.