Take Heed Millennials it Could be a Bumpy (But Exciting) Ride
It’s summer and, therefore, about 3 million students in America have graduated high school and are making plans for what to do next with their lives. In my family I have a niece that has graduated and so I’ve been giving some thought to the question (if she were to ask me): “Uncle Jason what advice do you have for me as I embark on my next adventures post-High School?”
I have posed this as a hypothetical question given that millennials often come across as having all the answers and so never give even a fleeting thought to ask an elder for advice or counsel about their futures. This thought-process has been going on for many decades, just par for the course.
Looking back I probably had the ‘know it all’ mindset as well. I wish I would have been a little more open to advice from older and wiser folks, things might have went more smoothly for me professionally. I would advise, therefore, to accept guidance from credible people that care about you—you’ll likely be glad you did.
Where does my credibility come from you ask? I am a Gen X guy who believed (almost with a religious zeal) that education was important and the more you had the better off you would be professionally. So, from 1993 until 2010 I embarked on an educational quest to attain a Doctorate in Sociology so I could teach and do research (read: save the world). Boy did I have “Big” plans.
Along the way I earned a B.A., with cum laude honors (Missouri State University), an M.A. with honors (University of Kansas), and a Ph.D. (University of Kansas). Little did I know (or care to pay attention to) the major structural changes occurring in higher education (over the past couple of decades) when I was in the midst of my educational marathon. Namely, one critical trend has been colleges and universities shifting from full-time tenure track to part-time contingent faculty teaching opportunities as a cost-saving measure. The pay and benefits for PT faculty is considerably lower than for FT faculty–and obviously this has had a major impact on recently minted Ph.D’s.
In 1969, 22% of the faculty were non-tenure track and 78% were tenure-track positions. Today, those numbers have flipped–33.5% of positions are tenure-track and 66.5% are non-tenure track/ineligible for tenure. Of course higher education is just one of many professions that has seen considerable change over the past several decades, but as a student it would have been smart for me to research the field more to know exactly what I was getting in to.
It is against this backdrop that I decided to make a major career change at 38 years of age. This certainly wasn’t what I planned when I was in my 20’s. Therefore, I think these life experiences qualify me to say a few words on the topic. Also, for more than a decade I was employed at three or four institutions of higher learning…so I’m keenly aware of some of the potential pitfalls of higher education.
So, even though no one I know that has graduated in 2016 has asked, I’m still going to take this opportunity to provide young people some advice that I think they should hear. Words to the wise I wish someone would have told me when I was 18 and heading off to college at Missouri State University in Springfield, Missouri.
Perhaps the easiest way to organize my thoughts is around a series of “Lies, Damned lies, and Statistics” (thanks Mark Twain) that we routinely tell our young people as they are growing up that can have negative consequences. At the end I will also pose a to-do-list of how to avoid the pitfalls that trap so many of us. As will be shown, having a recruiter on your side could serve as a real life-saver.
The truth is that millennials have been lied to in a myriad of ways so let me be your “friend at the factory” as Dr. Phil says.
“You can be whatever you want when you grow up”
This is a classic lie that when I was growing up in the 1970’s/80’s was told over and over again ad nauseam. From the get go this doesn’t even make logical sense—even though I know it sounds great when saying it to our kids. The primary problem with this line of bull is there clearly aren’t enough “good jobs” to go around and so someone has to do the less desirable jobs (of which there are plenty).
Furthermore, it’s just a fact that some people aren’t cut out for (or have the ability to do) “the most desirable” “highest paying jobs.” You have to work with the hand you are dealt. Some of us get a pair of Aces but most of us get a 4 and 8 off suit.
What’s more, there are approximately 12 million people who work full-time in the U.S. and the reality is an overwhelming majority (easily 3 out of 4) do not like their jobs. Several studies have indicated upwards of 70% “Hate” their jobs.
According to a recent article on salary.com, in 2015, 42% of people indicated that if they somehow became instant millionaires they’d be at the office the next day. I must call BS on this as well, and say that number is likely closer to 10%. Also noteworthy was 73% of respondents in the salary.com survey said they work “primarily for a paycheck”. This clearly supersedes all of the other ‘pie in the sky’ reasons we like to think people work: to be fulfilled, to give back to the community, to feel like I make a difference and so on.
What would be more appropriate would be to say, “Work like hell to attain highly sought after skills, abilities, and aptitudes and then be cautiously optimistic that you will reach your goals and dreams.” In other words, have a few ‘fallback’s’ ready to go in-case things beyond your control happen (and they do ALL of the time). This is also a great opportunity to seek out a professional recruiter so they can help you figure out the best career path for you.
“It’s more important to love what you do than worry about how much money you will make”
This one is a real heart-breaker for me because, as a sociologist, I told myself this lie a LOT over the years as I plowed along getting paid next to nothing to educate our youth. It’s ridiculous. If you don’t make a decent enough wage to meet your basic needs AND then have a little left over for fun and to save for the future you WILL be miserable, period. I will concur that money doesn’t = happiness. However, in order to do 90% of what you want to do in American society, it takes money. Plenty of people in America (believe me) don’t LOVE their jobs but LOVE cashing those checks if they are lucky enough to make a high salary.
“Your professional success directly correlates to how hard you work”
In other words, the harder you work the more likely your chances at professional success (and the less you work…yada yada). Oh my I could write a whole book on this lie (and maybe someday I will) – but suffice to say this part of the “American Dream” is completely dead for many people. There are millions in our country that work their asses off and get paid barely enough to survive and have a decent standard of living (and most of us are forced to work 2-3 jobs just to keep our heads above water). Since the early 1970’s the data clearly show that a gigantic majority of Americans are working harder (many more hours and increasing their productivity) for less and less pay. Millennials: be prepared to work your ass off and it *may* not translate into professional success. Sorry, that is the truth.
The Damned Lies
“Don’t worry about your Student Loan debt because once you graduate you will ‘magically’ have an amazing job that will pay you plenty to pay off those ‘pesky’ loans in no time”
This is truly a damnable lie if I ever heard one. There are many lies rolled into this one, so a little difficult to unravel. For one thing, given how expensive college has become there are a miniscule number of jobs (right out of college) that pay enough to allow a recent graduate to comfortably make their payments on the $40k or more (on average) they owe in student loans. A study in 2012 showed that in the past three decades the cost of a college degree has increased by a whopping 1,120%. So, the cost of a college education has skyrocketed to the moon and 51% of all American workers make less than $30,000/year. What could go wrong here?
Furthermore, it’s astonishing to learn about America’s student loan debt, namely how completely out of control it is. My prediction is Student Loans are the next ‘housing bubble’. Estimates are that over $1.35 trillion is owed by current and former students and rising every day. Let me write out that number so you can let it sink in properly: $1,350,000,000,000. In by-gone eras where tuition was reasonable and wages steadily went up for *everyone* student loans were not a problem. This game has totally changed and young people need to go into college knowing the risks and potential rewards.
“The degree or degrees you earn from America’s ‘esteemed’ institutions of higher learning will virtually ‘guarantee’ you a ticket into the ‘Middle Class'”
This one has been dead and buried for several decades now, but somehow often we still believe it (I think because we REALLY want it to be true). The facts show that much of the 2008 post-recession job growth has been in low-wage jobs. For those that choose a major where those skills, abilities, and aptitudes are in high demand – there’s a *chance* you can make it into the middle class, but there are NO guarantees.
“Colleges and Universities will provide you with excellent career counseling upon your graduation”
Absolutely not. The hubris of our institutions of higher learning is such that most are still stuck believing in the stale notion that “You’ll have no problem getting a job because you graduated from our prestigious university”–News flash no one cares anymore about institutional hubris and reputation. Most employers could care less, believe me. You MUST go out and actively promote yourself and get on the networking train (early in the process). While you are deciding what to major in, you might also want to explore recruiting firms and start fostering relationships with these critical folks as soon as possible.
I could provide a treasure chest of anecdotes on how statistics lie like a sidewalk, but for brevity I’ll just point out one that routinely bothers me.
“Even though college costs are completely out of control, college is still worth it”
The article will inevitably go on and on providing some BS statistics about how ‘in general’ it’s still a good idea. Tell that to the person who has an over-priced degree or degrees and can’t land a decent job to save his/her life. Believe me, they could care less about some dumb ‘longitudinal study’ showing how great college is—no matter what the costs and sacrifices are.
Just because some statistic says that those with an A.A. or B.A. make ‘slightly more’ over their lifetimes than someone without those degrees should NOT make the scam of college magically “worth it.”
What Should you Do?
So, hopefully you haven’t jumped off a cliff at this point and become too depressed. I’ve tried to present the state of affairs in a truthful fashion (based on personal experience and data when it’s available) so you know the rules of the game and what to expect. Now let me put some ‘verbs in my sentences’ and provide a tangible ‘to-do-list’ of things that I wish I had done. Take these seriously and you have a chance to be much happier than the 7 out of 10 people who dislike their jobs.
- Contact several recruiting firms in your area and try to find a potential match early in your schooling. Do NOT rely on your college/university to provide any assistance in this critical process. Professional recruiters have grown by leaps and bounds over the past couple of decades and can be an absolute life-saver for those trying to navigate the tricky labor market waters.
- Manage your expectations! Don’t believe the hype about how great your professional life is going to be–understand the realities of the U.S. economy in 2016 and that there are only so many things YOU can control.
- Work very hard. Be ready to consistently put in maximum effort in the classroom and in your professional pursuits.
- Do not wrap your ‘happiness’ in what you do for a living. This is so much easier said than done (honestly I still struggle mightily with this one). Seek professional help if you can’t disavow yourself from this notion.
- While in college explore what types of avocations and other activities you would like to contribute to your community that are NOT work related. It is likely that these pursuits will be where you truly find happiness and fulfillment. In my case I’ve chosen to be a football and basketball official—incredibly rewarding.
- Base your choice of major/minor not ONLY on what you are passionate about but also where there is the most demand. As much time as you study the things assigned to you by your generally out of touch professors spend a sizable amount of time also studying what the hot jobs are and how you plan to get one of those jobs.
- Put ‘networking’ as one of your goals/skills as you work toward your degree(s). Be sure you have a LinkedIn profile and be extremely careful about what kinds of ‘social media’ you share with your potential employers.
- Do a Return on Investment (ROI) analysis in regard to how much risk (student loan debt) you are willing to take on given the salary you *may* earn post-graduation. Be willing to go to a less expensive school (and be proud as hell to do so) knowing that you are making a much sounder financial decision than your peers who are overpaying at vastly overrated schools (that likely have an unhealthy opinion of themselves).
- When you work during your college years (whether in the summer or during the regular school year) open up an IRA savings account with a trusted financial adviser. I don’t care if you can only afford to contribute $10/month, do it. This will help you learn the power of investing smartly and why it’s so important to save as much money as you can. You will be amazed at how your money can grow—if you have 30+ years to let it grow (and you do).
- The Economy/Market are fluid and apt to abrupt change (in the supply and demand of labor) – so be ready to be flexible and nimble as you navigate your professional trajectory. Totally disregard the notion that you will spend your entire career at one or two entities. The reality is you will likely be on the move much more frequently.
- Enjoy your college experience! If you only view it as a ‘means to an end’ for a high paying job you will truly miss out on many of the wonderful aspects of college that have nothing to do with materialism or financial gain. One of my fondest memories of college was being part of (and President my Junior year) of a Co-Ed Service Fraternity (Alpha Phi Omega) at Missouri State (Beta Mu Chapter). It was with this group that I learned the power and satisfaction of doing for others in one’s local community. I still try and carry out this mission at 40. The seed was planted when I was 18.
Congratulations to all 3+ million millennials who graduated in the spring. You should feel proud of your accomplishments and look forward to having a successful professional career. However, it’s crucial to know the game you are getting into and work hard at adapting to changes in the economy and the labor market. The ‘old’ rules just don’t work like they used to. As long as you go in with your eyes wide open you will have a much better chance of navigating successfully around the potholes that are inevitably in your paths.