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June sets grads on a quest for a calling

By Marilyn Gardner / June 21, 2006



June is a month filled with promise and hope, symbolized by the diplomas and résumés holding center stage in homes across the country these days.

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For proof of those hopes, just ask any newly minted graduate eager to get a foothold on a career and earn that first postcollege paycheck. Or talk to any graduate's parents, relieved beyond measure to be free of tuition payments but eager to know that their offspring will soon be securely settled.

For graduates starting jobs in unfamiliar cities, parents' joy in knowing that their student is employed may be tempered by uncertainties. Is this the place their son or daughter will settle permanently? Or is it only the first waymark on the road to future jobs?

Any parent who has ever helped a graduate settle into a new location – finding an apartment, gathering minimal furnishings, and preparing for the first day of work – knows it is an underappreciated ritual. Other family milestones get their share of press – hugging a kindergartner goodbye on the first day of school, for example, or delivering a freshman to a huge university. But the postcollege launch deserves attention, too. This is the truest test yet of an offspring's independence, the beginning of real adulthood and real work. Who can blame a mother – or father – for getting misty-eyed when it's time to leave?

For those in the Class of 2006 who are still studying employment ads, e-mailing résumés, and waiting for interviews, the process can seem more complicated than ever. A generation ago, most young job-seekers didn't need a long list of internships to attract an employer's interest, as they often do today. And the old question, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" seemed to have simpler answers.

Today that question can intrigue and vex workers at any stage of life. No wonder there's a market for a website called Vocation Vacations, which gives potential career-changers an opportunity to try out their dream job for a brief period, just to see if their dreams square with reality. Think you'd like to be a cheesemaker, a horse trainer, a style consultant, a radio announcer, or a wedding planner? Don't quit your day job just yet. For a price, the site will match you with a mentor who will guide you.

College grads aren't the only ones polishing résumés these days. Retirees and older baby boomers are also job-hunting, but with a difference. A survey released Wednesday by RetirementJobs.com finds that job-seekers age 50 and older place a big premium on flexible work conditions – perhaps working only part of a day, a week, or a year. Seven out of 10 respondents ranked flexibility so important that they would be willing to take reduced pay in exchange for a schedule that suited them. As for entrepreneurship, only 30 percent expressed interest.

More than 30 years ago, Studs Terkel turned on his tape recorder and listened as 135 people from all walks of life talked about their work – their dreams and disappointments, their satisfaction and frustration. The result was his bestseller, "Working," a classic that remains relevant today.

Job titles were simpler then: bank teller, stockbroker, airline reservationist. No one had yet heard of such vague 21st-century positions as chief diversity manager, director of institutional effectiveness, or senior validation engineer.

But some things never change. Then, as now, workers in every field, however exalted or humble, yearned for what Mr. Terkel describes as "a meaning to their work well over and beyond the reward of the paycheck." He adds, "To be remembered was the wish, spoken and unspoken, of the heroes and heroines of this book."

Terkel's book makes good reading and rereading anytime, but perhaps especially in June, when so many career paths are beginning.

He correctly anticipated that security would be among the "most promising" occupations in modern society. "No matter how tight the job market, here is a burgeoning field for young men and women." Even then, in the early 1970s, he marveled at "an almost runaway technology." Above all, he is "constantly astonished by the extraordinary dreams of ordinary people."

As this year's new graduates and older baby boomers blanket employers with carefully honed résumés highlighting their talents and skills, they might echo the heartfelt comment an editor named Nora Watson made to Terkel: "I think most of us are looking for a calling, not a job."

It's a wish, a hope, a prayer that couldn't be more timely – and timeless – for the "heroes and heroines" of the 2006 job search, whatever their age.

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