During the last several weeks, millions of young people have graduated from America’s high schools, some facing the world of work and some going on to higher educations. Thousands have also graduated from our nation’s colleges, and most of those are indeed facing the reality of life in the working world, if they can find a job.
Particularly one that suits them.
I finished college and found myself in one of the most competitive job markets in American history. Other baby boomers and I descended on the American workplace just like we had descended on public schools, then on colleges — in droves. My wave came at a time when our national economy was taking a bit of a dip, not unlike today, and most of us took what jobs we could land and started working our way up.
I started my first post-college job as the “traffic girl” at a radio station in Winston-Salem, a lowly typing job if ever there was one. Today’s graduates, the children of my baby boom generation, seem to have a somewhat different outlook. I had begun to notice this, so it was no wonder that a recent piece in the New York Times by Lisa Belkin caught my eye. She has noticed it as well.
My generation’s children — many of them loved, pampered, nurtured and highly educated by their parents, are looking not just for any job, but for one that fulfills and challenges them, one that is both meaningful and an adventure, one that uses their intellect and skills and does good for others. Whew! I hope each and every one of these job seekers achieves that goal, but I certainly never felt that way about my traffic job.
The Times article did get me thinking, though, about where this attitude originates, and I think it came from us, their parents. We are the folks who worried about their self-esteem to the point that everyone on the elementary-age soccer team got a trophy and everyone in the baby class at the horse show got a blue ribbon. Same for field day. We have talked to them about having passion for their work and of leaving the world a better place than it was when they started, even if none of this was true for us in our workplaces. We have told them it is all about them. We have made them very, very special.
The danger in all this, of course, is that we have so elevated their expectations that they will inevitably be disappointed, because employers are almost always more interested in providing their product or service than they are in fulfilling the career expectations of their employees. To be fair, the children of we baby boomers are likely to be more in demand than we were for the simple reason that there are far fewer of them than there were of us, so employers may very well value them more and cater to them in some ways. But my guess is they will still have some adjusting to do as they settle into the working world.
I spent most of my working career in radio broadcasting, a wonderful and creative industry. It was a third generation family business, and working with my family for our mutual benefit was a fun, sometimes character-building experience. But I was not fulfilled every day. Serving in the North Carolina House of Representatives is a profound honor and a daily challenge, where compromise — not individuality, is the operative word. I think, though, that an early job during college summers probably laid the foundation of work for me.
Waiting tables at a swanky private club in New England let me know without a doubt that there is value in doing a job — any job — well, and that going home at the end of the day knowing you did so is a great satisfaction. It taught me that the customer is almost always right, even when he is wrong, and that a good, understanding boss makes the difference in any job. The chance of getting that waiting job in that particular part of the world taught me that in some cases finding work is less a plan than an accident, more a matter of persistence than of talent, and that sometimes you just have to go with it. Most importantly, though, it taught me that I could support myself — keep a roof over my head and food in the fridge, and still aspire to a higher standard of work and of living in the future.
As I look at the young adults I know, part of me is envious of all they have ahead, and part of me quakes for all they must learn as they move along the often scary path of adulthood. And I am certain of two truths. We baby boomers desperately want them to find work that does challenge and fulfill them and which leaves the world a better place for their having done it.We also want them to be able to pay the rent.
Contact Margaret Dickson at firstname.lastname@example.org