With unemployment high and a poor economy, it’s obviously tough for recent college graduates to find jobs. The Energy Trap makes that job search harder—as many young adults return to live with their parents in the suburbs, they have to make commutes and cars that were comfortable a generation ago work with today’s gas prices and job market. 
For Ro, a 23 year old who lives with her folks in Vallejo, California, a far flung suburb of San Francisco, at first it was a choice between gas money and lunch. That was easy: Gas of course. But from there, things have gotten more complicated as she juggles transportation costs and finding full-time work, never mind a career. After four years of college and a year of doing volunteer work in Thailand, Ro has discovered that gasoline is a big part of her destiny. “This was not how I thought the world was going to be for me,” she said in a recent interview, “I had a sense of agency.” 
Ro’s gloomy outlook is typical of her generation. A recent study from Rutgers’ Heldrich Center For Workforce Development found that 58 percent of recent graduates believe they will do less well than their parents. For many generations Americans have expected to have better economic lives than their parents, for Ro’s age just 17  percent expect to do better. Like Ro, 29 percent of those 22-25 now live at home for economic reasons. (You can download the report here: http://bit.ly/iijwR4.)
When Ro first returned from volunteering in Thailand, she had a part-time job waiting for her. It wasn’t much—selling cards in a town 10 miles away with take-home pay of $178 every two weeks. The store’s owner had known her for years. But when she started driving her parents’ 1994 Explorer, which appears to get around 10 mpg, she discovered she had to carefully juggle the gas in the tank between paydays. “When I was 16 $20 got me three-quarters of a tank. Now it barely buys me a quarter of a tank.” Because gas was consuming nearly a third of her biweekly paycheck, she struggled to figure out how to commute to the internships she knew she needed to get the kind of job she wanted.
Once she did find an internship—a wonderful one at an office networking site in San Francisco—she had to figure out how to use her card shop income to get her too and from the internship. First she’d leave the house at 6:30 to drive 20 miles to a BART station, which included a $5 bridge toll. Then she’d spend $10.80 on a ticket, and $1 on parking. Her internship came to cost her $34 in transit and toll and 8 gallons of gas a week. She’d get home from the internship at 8:30 at night. And she still had to work at the card shop the other three days. If you do the math it’s nearly impossible to stay afloat. How did she make ends meet? She didn’t eat lunch. “Money was so tight and gas was non-negotiable.” If she did buy lunch it was a $2.71 order of fries.
(I asked why she didn’t bring a sack lunch and the picture only got more complicated. Ro said that her parents have been strapped since being given early retirement. “I chose not to tell them I was struggling with money and not eating. It was less stressful if I just left the house,” (without packing a lunch) she said.)
Ro’s hard work and exceptional social skills made her luck: Her internship hired her on to work full time early in the summer. Now, of course, Ro has to do the expensive commute 5 days a week. “I’m always thinking about gas prices rising,” she says, “Living that way so long and being afraid. I had real despair. I’m afraid that in ten years I’ll still be living at home, still looking for something, and still being so far away from everything.” What she’s trying to do now is put enough money aside to move into her own apartment close to work so she can get rid of her car. That will require many months of careful saving. 
“I literally can’t find a single friend who isn’t struggling to make money and also to get to work,” she said. Like her, Ro’s friends can no longer rely on California’s once vaunted car culture. After months of searching, one friend finally found a graphic design job in the center of the state. Unable to move to a new apartment, or afford to spend $100 a week on gas for the long commute, he tried sleeping in his car and even sleeping in a field during the probation period. He did not get the job. Another friend lives at home and commutes to a job with low pay and steady hours. But when her boyfriend got a job, he also moved in with her parents, and now they struggle to pay for the gas it takes the two of them to commute. For a while they paid on credit cards, but that lead to credit card bills higher than their income.
For Ro, this doesn’t feel like a temporary bad patch in the economy; It feels like the future. “This is not the world we were promised.”