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The New Economy for College Grads: 22-22-22

For the last four years I have been blogging about the triumphs, trials and tribulations of raising adult children. When I launched the blog I wasn’t sure there would be enough material for a weekly post, especially since my own adult children insisted that I not use them as copy on a regular basis. So much for Nora Ephron’s mantra, “Everything is copy.”

As it turned out, the blog’s timing was fortuitous because 20-somethings are living through enormous cultural, social and economic change, all parsed by academics, researchers, think tanks, authors, journalists, and, of course, the general public in online comments.

One of the more daunting changes that we have witnessed is the struggle of 20-somethings to find well-paying jobs.  Some of us hoped that this situation would moderate as the recession receded. However, the job search has gotten only more difficult and competitive even as the economy claws its way back.  As a result, the new normal is that almost 6 million young adults are living at home post college while looking for work, and you probably have at least one boomerang child.

So what can our highly educated children expect as they send out resumes? Many will consider themselves fortunate to find an unpaid internship that requires at least three days a week, for upwards of 8 to 10 hours daily.

Or, if they are really lucky, perhaps they’ll land an entry-level job, tagged a “22-22-22.”  Translation: a 22-year-old who will work 22-hours a day for $22,000 (and feel blessed). The hours are only slight hyperbole. Now 20-somethings have discovered the downside of technology that keeps them connected 24/7–not to friends–rather on demand to their bosses and co-workers.

Yes, that’s the new economy for college grads, as described by The New York Times in “The No-Limits Job.” That imprimatur was confirmed recently by an acquaintance at a marquee media company who dubs them “The 23s,” as in 23-year-olds making $23,000 a year.  She added grimly, “And there’s dozens of them lining up to take the jobs.”

So what now?  One topic we’ve covered repeatedly is advice on how to help that 20-something find a job and move out of your house.   My newly minted college grad lived at home for the past seven months before finding a job (cheers!) so this is a subject of intense personal interest.  Like an anthropologist of sorts, I watched her job search (trying not to be too overbearing) and those of her friends, in a range of occupations.  I’ve also kept in contact with NYU journalism grads.

So what does work in the scary new world?  An admittedly unscientific sampling from observing those who got hired provides some lessons learned:

  • Get off the computer. There are no jobs online; resumes go into a black hole.
  • Take unpaid internships (sorry about that) that give face time and put grads in the right place at the right time when a position does open if they work their butts off.
  • Contact—in person if possible—every family and business friends/acquaintances with even a remote connection to the chosen field.  (My daughter used the six-degrees-of-separation approach to find an opening 350 miles from home.)
  • Cold-call people by just showing up: “I was in the neighborhood.” Risky but worth the occasional success.
  • Look beyond the beloved college major to other fields;  start-ups in particular often are more interested in emotional intelligence than extensive experience, especially for beginner slots.
  • Get out of New York and other big cities and target smaller markets.  Yes, that means your child will have to move, and you’ll likely spend even more money helping with the new digs, but if it gets them launched it’s worth it.  They can make their mistakes in a small pond and then come back, or they may even enjoy life more somewhere else

Finally realize that as difficult as it is for you to watch your child struggle, it’s much more painful for them. As a 22-year-old told me last September, “For the first time in my life I have no game plan. With school I knew what I had to do to succeed. Now’s it’s hard to tell what’s the right approach and what’s wrong.” Patience all around helps too.

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