As a psychologist and part-time university lecturer, I've been hearing and reading a lot lately about heightened "anxiety" among college students who are, or soon will be, entering a tough job market. Bring on the anxiety, I say! For many young Americans, it's about time they started worrying about whether they'll actually be able to create value for somebody someday. It's about time they stressed out about whether their educational achievements and work experiences will be good enough. It's about time they put down their beers and their great expectations and started thinking further ahead than next weekend, next semester or even next year. Failure to delay gratification is the single most distinguishing personality trait common to underachievers in every society that's been the subject of such psychological research, and while it can be overdone – worrying so much about the future that you don't smell any roses in the present – I see the vast majority of American college students in no such danger!
A recent article in the Kansas City Star I read contained the following quote from a soon-to-be college graduate: "I remember distinctly when I went to college, there was kind of a promise of a job when I was done. … But it's really tough right now, there's nothing. … The shock that so much has changed … I definitely feel a little robbed. … I'm not in a specialized field, hard to know what I want to do. … But I'm really qualified."
Now, this may surprise readers who are familiar with my published writings and televised rants, but I actually agree that she was "robbed" – of proper instruction in American history and economics, which I'll try to remedy here: First, there was never a promise, not even "kind of" a promise, of a job to anyone who finishes college in this country. Second, it should not "shock" you when economic conditions change. They've been changing since the country has been here and will continue to change as long as it's here. Third, the time to figure out what you want to do is not when you're graduating! Finally, if you're not in a "specialized field," and you don't even know what you want to do by the time you graduate, you probably are not "really qualified."
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Another soon-to-be college graduate quoted in the same article reportedly said, "Imagine how I feel coming out of college with little experience. … I'm entering the job market flooded with well-qualified applicants. … I have solace, though, that everyone in my generation is struggling with the same thing. … I know kids in other industries, they've graduated from college and they're just sitting at home."
Now, lest anyone think I'm not a very empathic psychologist, I want everyone to know that I did pause to "imagine" how he felt – entitled! Luckily, Dr. Brian's still on call to help him get back in touch with reality: First, yes, you're entering a job market flooded with well-qualified applicants. That's why you need to be well-qualified, too! Why should someone who's not well-qualified expect to get a job in any economy, and if you're not well-qualified for entry-level positions coming out of college, why not? Second, no, not everyone in your generation is struggling with the same thing. A recent college graduate who actually has a job was quoted in the very same article saying, "I had this sense of urgency. … I had this need to put myself out there and seek employers instead of the other way around." I'll bet her sense of urgency didn't start at graduation either. It probably started years before graduation, while her peers who now feel robbed and entitled were patting themselves on the backs for developing unconditional self-esteem with the encouragement of well-meaning but profoundly misguided parents and teachers. It's no surprise that a student who's upset by the expectation that he be well-qualified would have friends who also are "just sitting at home" (their parents' homes, I'm sure) post-graduation instead of working. Yes, many firms may have frozen recruiting, but nobody's frozen your rears! Get out there and do something, whether you like it or not, and maybe, just maybe, you'll actually end up closer to being "well-qualified" when something you do like becomes available!
Yet another college student quoted in the same article, a sophomore who has already changed majors three times and attended three different colleges, offered a priceless gem of adolescent wisdom about previous generations of American workers: "They could pick and choose what they wanted to do. I want to do that, too … But it's not the land of opportunity like it once was."
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Apparently, neither American history nor economics were among his three previous majors, so once again, it's Dr. Brian to the rescue to administer 123 words of intraocular tough love, stat: Try telling the professionals – engineers, lawyers and bankers – who went to work in coal mines during the Great Depression that they got to "pick and choose" what they wanted to do! Making a living doing something you like is ideal, but it's a luxury that generally has to be earned, and even then, circumstances like bad economies, wars and other crises can intervene. This is still the "land of opportunity," but many opportunities must be earned, which generally requires a lot of forethought, focus and hard work! As successful as the baby-boom generation has been economically, many of its members have failed to teach their children how much hard work success requires, leaving the children to think that affluence comes naturally with adulthood.
One last college student quoted in the article said of his job search, "Every day, I'm constantly sweating about it. … It almost drives you to tears. Here you are $80,000 in debt, and you don't know how you're going to pay that off." Well, being worried about paying it off is a start and puts him ahead of many of his peers and many of his fellow Americans. So, at motivational, sub-clinical levels, I say again, bring on the anxiety!