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Time to Explore Options Beyond Work?

Many new college grads are unable to find work that uses their skills. Perhaps parents should encourage emerging adults to take time to explore the world before trying to jump start a career.

We baby boomers are the generation that professionalized parenting.  We gave our kids trophies simply for playing soccer and dancing in the recital.  We afforded them adventures and sports camps and personal coaches and tutors.  We told them they could be whatever they wanted with hard work.  Then the Great Recession hit like a tsunami, wiping out many opportunities.

Nonetheless, the belief is still strong that “this too shall pass.”  Eventually the economy and the job market will stabilize, and that self confidence we tried to instill will help them survive the economic storm. 

However a recent article  in The Atlantic Monthly, “How a New Jobless Era Will Transform America,” paints a grim picture of the future for our children and others in Gen Y, arguing that they will never recover from the Great Recession in terms of income or longterm career. Author Don Peck writes,

The Great Recession may be over, but this era of high joblessness is probably just beginning. Before it ends, it will likely change the life course and character of a generation of young adults.

 He argues that several key factors will hurt Gen Y:

  • The recession will permanently  impact  their  lifetime earnings
  • Low paid or low prestige first jobs will have an “inordinate impact on their career path”
  • Not having an established job for a year or two can “provoke long-lasting changes in behavior and mental health.”

Those are all factors out of their control.    But as if that is not enough, he points to we parents for setting them up with too many great expectations.

Trained throughout childhood to disconnect performance from reward, and told repeatedly that they are destined for great things, many are quick to place blame elsewhere when something goes wrong, and inclined to believe that bad situations will sort themselves out—or will be sorted out by parents or other helpers.

While Peck certainly makes some valid points, the situation is not as hopeless as he believes. Anecdotal evidence from friends and acquaintances indicates that a fair number of young adults, with their parents’ support, are squeezing that lemon of unemployment to make lemonade. For some young adults, the lack of good job prospects gives them both the opportunity and courage to try something else. 

After college graduation this spring, one friend’s son will go full-time in his part-time job as a back office clerk for a year or so while living at home.  He will be expected to pay rent and for health insurance. The plan, says his mom, is to save money and then travel for six months or so around the world with a backpack as only a 20-something can.  When he returns home, he will likely start law school. “When else can he travel like that?” said his mom. “He’ll probably get a lot more out of grad school if he takes off a year or two.” His plan is similar to the “gap” year between high school and college considered routine in some European countries.  An American approach might move it post college instead of post high school.

While shopping with my fashionista daughter I met a young woman who will graduate Boston University in May with a major in retailing.  She had been accepted into a “teach English in a foreign country” program and was heading to Italy come September for a yearlong commitment.  “I’m excited and nervous,” she said, and echoing my friend, “but when else in my life will I get to do something like this?” Indeed. 

Maybe if there was a great job waiting she would have hopped right on the corporate bandwagon…for the next 50 years. Chances are that she and the rest of her generation will be working until at least age 70.  Why not take some time to explore before she begins her career.  Of course there are worries: What will a potential employer think of that gap on her resume? How will she get back “on track”? Those are the same questions used to discourage young moms who want to take a few years off to stay at home, and thousands have managed to overcome them. 

The children of some other friends have joined Teach for America and the Peace Corps, and another volunteered for a year at an American Indian reservation.  The pay is low but the experience is priceless. Still others have decided to freelance in their dream jobs: photographer, film maker, chef, writer, all in an attempt to get a career off the ground. Better to try now, goes the thinking, than to look back at age 40 and wonder “Could I have made it as a…(fill in the blank).”

Admittedly the off-the-beaten path route is not an option for everyone. For those that manage to find work,  many should say ‘yes’ to the offer, even if it’s not what they—or we—imagined, assumed, hoped or planned for. Some young adults have thousands of dollars of student loans, others don’t do well without structure, and for others, while the job might be beneath their perceived skill level, it’s a start. But there are still many “emerging adults” who would benefit from a “gap”  year or two.

Peck writes that certain traits will be necessary for Gen Y to succeed:

a harsh economic environment… requires perseverance, adaptability, humility, and entrepreneurialism.

For many young college grads maybe the chance to explore the world, expand their horizons, work alongside people without college degrees, live without a credit card and on a tight budget might be the best post-graduate education. And in the process they might learn those very traits needed to succeed.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Suzanne Anderson March 29, 2010, 9:05 pm

    Hi Mary!
    Your blog was right on! You beautifully addressed, head on, the anxieties of the young grads who have done everything right to get the education we hoped, and they wanted to attain, by keeping the eye on the prize: the ideal job. Now that the prize has slipped away, our young grads have to settle for that lesser paying job, or unplanned for job description, in this economic climate. Maybe this will help these grads to develop better coping mechanisms without getting that immediate gratification in these stressed job times.

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