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This is graduation season – high school and college – when the first question after “congratulations” is “what are you doing next?”
The overwhelming scent in the air is one of pessimism, in part because earlier this spring, the economy had shown signs of good health. Indeed, the private sector is continuing to create jobs now – in sharp contrast to 2009 – when it was shedding hundreds of thousands of positions every month. And a number of economists are stressing, as they did on the NewsHour a few days ago, that May conditions related to dropping home values and high gasoline prices — and the toll those took on consumer and employer confidence — may not last long. But it’s hard to ask people out of work for a long time to just be patient. And there is no way to force employers to hire if they don’t see it in their interest to do so.
What does all this mean to young people starting their careers – or at least the early jobs that could lead to a career? Reports have shown that for the past couple years that they have joined the older generation in taking a hit. A large number have moved back home with their parents after graduation; another large percentage have had to settle for lower paying jobs, or for jobs in fields outside their area of main interest. It’s too early to know what this means for their confidence in the future, but studies show that getting a late start on the job of one’s choice – and starting at a lower salary level – often means lower total earnings over the course of a career because of the difficulty in playing catch-up.
There’s also the question commonly asked of Baby Boomers: do you think your children and their generation will do as well as you have? Lately, the answer has been “no” – not surprising given the weakness of the recovery. But I found this pessimistic view may have deeper roots than the current economy: A national poll reported by NBC News in July 2006, well before the financial collapse, reported that nearly two-thirds of American adults that year didn’t believe life for their children’s generation would be better than it had been for them.
I don’t want to minimize the economic reality, but as I’ve talked with some graduating seniors, they don’t seem as worried as their parents – then or now. One set of conversations I had was with students at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y. They all told me they feel their job prospects are brighter than those of their older brothers and sisters, who graduated a couple of years ago, or even than last year. Since I’m giving the commencement address at Union this weekend, I wanted to get a better feel for the senior class. All five of the seniors I spoke with, three men and two women, said they have a job or a slot in graduate school lined up. They also said they feel good about their long-term prospects.
This isn’t a scientific survey; but at a school where a number of students are the first in their family to graduate from college, it was interesting to find that sort of confidence in their own futures. It’s consistent with what polls of the younger generation have shown in recent years: that they are realistic in outlook but more optimistic than “Generation X,” the next older cohort, now in their ‘30s and early ‘40s. And it’s consistent with reporting done by generational experts Neil Howe and the late William Strauss, that today’s Millennials believe they will contribute to shaping the economy they work in as adults. Already many have signed on to work in the public sector – in service positions like Teach for America, or for non-profit organizations in the U.S. and overseas.
But authors Morley Winograd and Michael Hais, who have previously written about the younger generation, warn in their new book, “Millennial Momentum: How a New Generation is Remaking America,” that private sector leaders that they too will have a responsibility:
“(T)heir leadership paradigm will have to change just as radically as conventionally accepted notions of what drives economic growth. A new type of organizational leadership that matches the values and beliefs of Millennials will be required in order to engage those fortunate enough to have a job in the process of innovation and creativity….”
In other words, watch out. If the economy doesn’t make room for these young people, there’s a very good chance they will find ways to change the economy to make room for themselves.
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