Unemployed college grads: the upside

About half of the college grads from 2010 had jobs a year later. I have four kids who finished college in the last three years and one more still in school. But they’re getting something out of this raw deal, and so are their peers: an attitude adjustment, and experience outside the cubicle.

I walked out of college after six years with a master’s degree in English literature and right into the dark days of 1982. Unemployment was 10 percent. Mortgage rates were 13 percent. And my chances of getting a real job turned out to be about zero. But more about that later.

What can a college grad expect today? Well, it’s not much better. According to a recent piece in the New York Times, about half of the class of 2010 still hadn’t found a job almost a year later. (By contrast, 90 percent of the classes of 2006 and 2007 already had jobs a year later).

So what are these recent grads doing? They’re tending bar, pressing espressos, making change at Target. They’re sending out dozens of résumés a week, doing volunteer work to build their résumés, networking on LinkedIn, and an alarming number are back at home, living with Mom and Dad.

Economists and social observers now talk about a lost mini-generation, fearing these recent grads will never catch up financially because the lower your starting salary, the smaller your earning potential over time.

So is there an upside to all this gloom?

I sure hope so, since I have four kids who finished college in the last three years and one more still in school. They are at various stages in the statistics of unemployment, underemployment, and full employment. But they’re getting something out of this raw deal, I think, and so are millions of their peers.

The first thing they’re getting is an attitude adjustment. The bad economy is doing them a favor by teaching them the value of a job. I see it in my own kids, and I see it in the new employees at my ad agency. There’s a sense of purpose, a focus and even, dare I say it, a sense of loyalty and gratitude that’s been missing for most of a generation.

Based on my experience, much of the class of 2006, for example, wanted a promotion, a raise, and their own offices by the end of 2007. Their expectations were absurdly out of touch with any reality. So this current lowering of expectations is a much needed adjustment. But it isn’t just good for employers, it’s good for employees. Expecting less can actually make you happier.

After my unsuccessful job search in the real world, I took a permanent part-time job as a college instructor of English. If you divided my pay by 40 hours a week, I was making little more than minimum wage, but it was the best thing that ever happened to me – or my career.

Teaching taught me to relate to people and to read their motivations and adjust in an instant. Teaching also taught me how to communicate ideas simply and to present them effectively. Who knew these skills would turn out to be so prized in the business world? And most importantly, I learned not to measure my self-worth in dollars.

And when I finally got a “real” job eight years later as an advertising copywriter, I was remarkably grateful for everything, from paid vacations to having my own small office. I remember my first holiday season at the agency. I got what I later learned was a miniscule bonus check. And I wrote a thank-you note to the president of the agency. He later told me that he’d never gotten one before. Other employees expected bonuses. I didn’t.

I don’t want to idealize low pay, and I don’t want to underestimate the burden of college debt that today’s students have. But I do think it helps to take a longer view of the whole career track and to look for value in the unexpected twists and turns of the odd job, the job you would never have considered had everything gone as planned.

My son Max just graduated from Ohio Sate with a degree in English. He never could have guessed that he would be working as a therapist for autistic kids, but he decided to give it a shot because it was a job, and so he went through six weeks of training over the summer.

Yesterday I got a phone call that would be captioned, if phone calls had captions, as “I May Never Be Part of a Moment This Great Ever Again.”

Max has been working several days a week with a nine-year-old autistic child who we’ll call Sam. Max works with Sam several days a week on social and developmental skills. Sam is completely nonverbal. And yet yesterday, against all odds, Sam said his first word, “Hi.”

But that’s not the great moment that Max called about. No, that came later when Sam’s mother got home from work, and Sam, with Max standing behind him, said “Hi” to his mom. That’s an experience you’re not going to get in a cubicle.

Jim Sollisch is creative director at Marcus Thomas Advertising.

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