Are many young adults today just not trying hard enough to launch their careers and gain financial independence?
My June 4 column addressed how many parents were struggling to help get their adult sons and daughters on the right career path. I suggested their kids needed a little bit of tough love. Mom and Dad can’t keep the gravy train going forever, right?
Well, I got a bunch of letters from folks who thought I was being too hard on recent graduates who couldn’t find jobs in their chosen professions.
Some readers pointed to a lack of economic opportunities for U.S. workers thanks to globalization and a growing chasm between the rich and poor. It’s harder today for young people trying to make it in the world than past generations, many of you wrote.
Anthony Chapman of New York writes: “I am amazed at the overall message of your article, which, like most articles or reports on this subject nowadays, carries a macho 'blame the victim' tone. The fact is, that these unemployed kids are through before they even start. Corporate globalism and feel-good pro-immigration attitudes in The United States have combined to mount a coordinated attack on American labor, the likes of which hasn't been seen since the days of Joe Hill and The Wobblies. Articles such as yours perpetuate the myth that Americans are the masters of their own financial destinies, which is, in my opinion, a laughable fallacy.”
Are Americans no longer "masters of their own financial destinies”?
Indeed, there is something to this argument.
Men in their 30s today make less money than their dads did at the same age, according to a recently released report from the Economic Mobility Project, part of an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trust.
The project, comprised of a bipartisan group of experts from The American Enterprise Institute, The Brookings Institution, The Heritage Foundation and The Urban Institute, set out to find out whether economic mobility in America was alive and well.
The report found that men who were in their 30s in 1974 "had median incomes of about $40,000, while men of the same age in 2004 had median incomes of about $35,000 (adjusted for inflation). Thus, as a group, income for this generation of men is, on average, 12 percent lower than those of their fathers’ generation."
John Morton, the report’s co-author, told me these findings don’t include reasons for the economic drop among these men, although they will be looking at that over the next 18 months. “Our focus is on the question of mobility, a person or family’s ability to move up and down the income ladder. Our goal was to inspire or provoke debate.”
It’s hard not to let such reports provoke us all — not to mention accounts about skyrocketing executive compensation. A recent Associated Press story did some unsettling math on CEO pay:
“If 6,694 people earning minimum wage worked for one year, they collectively would have made as much as the highest-paid CEO last year of a Standard & Poor’s 500 company.”
There’s no way around it, such disparities can dishearten any job seeker, and addressing the issues of mobility and pay equity are critical. But let’s go back to the adult kid who’s sitting on his parent’s couch trying to find a job, or embark on his or her career.
No matter what the numbers say, you have to be aggressive in your job search and not allow rejection to derail you. Young men and women don’t have the luxury to stand by and do nothing if they want a fulfilling life, even if their parents are offering to bankroll them. (I know you haven’t missed the stories about Paris Hilton lately, so you know where that can lead.)
It is harder to find a job in your chosen career these days, says Rich Milgram, CEO of beyond.com, an online job site. Making it harder to target your job search are the endless choices now available within every profession. “Even with computers, now you have a choice between the Internet, software or hardware,” he says.
Traditional gigs at corporations are few and far between. If you just got a degree in chemical engineering, for example, and have five large firms in mind you want to work for, don’t give up if you can’t land a job there. Look to smaller startups or join a consulting firm that works with one of the big corporations you long to be a part of.
Young adults coming out of college who can’t find jobs, he adds, “either don’t have the tools to search them out, haven’t got the motivation or aren’t finding opportunities in their specific niches.”
Another thing to keep in mind, even as we look at the numbers on how young adults are less well off than their parents, is that perceptions of work have changed.
It’s not all about the money, says Penelope Trunk, author of the "Brazen Careerist."
“It used to be — for the baby boomers," she said. "But for Gen X and Gen Y the American dream is about time. And both generations are much better at managing their time than baby boomers. Baby boomers sold their time in exchange for money and power at work. Younger generations won’t do this.”
Job seekers should consider asking for a more flexible work schedule during the negotiation process if the starting salary they are offered isn’t stellar.
And I know paying your dues is considered passé with today’s I-want-to-be-a-CEO-now mentality, but sometimes it’s the only way through your dream career’s front door.
That’s said, we all need to acknowledge the murky job picture for America’s youth.
Erik T. Schneider from Madison, Wis., who didn’t take kindly to my column, is a good example.
“You obviously have no idea how absolutely terrible the job market is for a new graduate (or any middle class person for that matter). To characterize it as awful would be generous,” he writes. “Not every unemployed college graduate is a layabout. It took me many, many months to get the wonderful job that I have now (and am very proud of) and absolutely zero credit of that goes to my university, who did nothing to help me find any employment (which is common). How about you try getting a real job and see how difficult it is? “
Erik inspired me to write this response poem:
I spent lots of time
on the unemployment line.
I paid my dues
writing about underwear and shoes.
I work late hours;
sometimes don’t have time for showers.
Erik, I know how you feel,
but my friend, this job is all too real.
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