Can it really be five years since our Great Recession hit? I was in Beijing at the time the ax fell in the Spring of 2008, first with the sudden death of investment house Bear Stearns and the shocking chain reaction that ensued. I felt distant from it at first, but I was not immune. Within six months I and other Westerners at my firm would find ourselves laid off as the company lost clients. Luckily I got another job very quickly, but many millions of Americans would not have it so easy.
David Vranicar is the brother of this blogger, whose praises I often sing (and I wish he would update his blog more frequently). David is also the author of a book, The Lost Graduation: Stepping Off Campus and into a Crisis, that has been waiting to be written: a page-turning memoir of a college grad in the class of ’08 and his search for employment as things go from bad to worse to unbearable. Along the way, he manages to walk us through the calamity of America’s falling employment numbers and lost opportunities, humanizing what at the time seemed like a bundle of meaningless statistics. The never-ending stream of bad economic news is seamlessly woven into the very personal story of Vranicar’s plight. He writes in a funny, self-deprecating style and there are many long laughs along the way. But the story itself is tragic, heartbreaking. So many young people living in the bedrooms where they grew up, with parents who are as anxious as they are about their future. The shock waves of month after month of worsening economic news, soon to be year after year.
To make matters worse, David is a journalism major whose dream is to work as a sports reporter, just as one newspaper after another folds and more and more unemployed journalists join the competition for scarce jobs in a dying field. He comes so close to landing opportunities, only to watch them disintegrate in front of his eyes.
I’ve read countless articles about the “lost generation” and the difficulties they will face for years to come, if not forever. But Vranicar’s book offers the perspective of an actual victim, his day to day travails and attempts to keep his head above water and his spirits high even when his job search leads to countless dead ends.
Needing to do something, Vranicar is led by fate to Shandong’s capital city of Jinan to teach English. He captures the horrors of teaching young, bored, hyperactive Chinese children and of living in a dorm adorned in front with a stream of sewage, dubbed Shit Creek by the teachers. But life in Jinan isn’t all horrible; the teaching hours are short and there’s plenty of time to travel and explore. This section and other descriptions of his days overseas are a welcome relief from the painful rendering of looking for a job in a jobless America. Improbably, Vranicar ends up studying in both Copenhagen and Amsterdam, where he is amazed at the generosity of socialist countries – scholarships, stipends for their foreign students, summers at the beach, etc.
The book does not have any happy endings. Vranicar has no steady job, but after all he has gone through his spirit has not been defeated. He has learned resiliency and resoluteness. As he says at the end,
[W]hile the recession has altered the fortunes of so many, it has also steeled us against the worst. We have learned how to cope with what’s been lost, and to keep our eyes open for what can be found.
The Lost Graduation is a bittersweet microcosm of the plight of college graduates in the Recession Age. It paints vivid pictures, not just of the author’s hometown of Kansas City but of the cities he visits such as Jinan, Amsterdam and Copenhagen, and brilliantly interlaces history and current events and numbers that are too painful to believe into a very human, poignant and moving story. I was charmed throughout; you will be, too.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.