Helping College Grads Find Work In a Bad Economy




We all know that college grads are “confronting the worst job market in decades,” as The New York Times’ Steven Greenhouse writes. There is no question that this is a distressing state of affairs. Yet I’m afraid I don’t see this in a totally negative light.

Although I acknowledge that it is painful for young people and their parents when dreams of a golden future are crushed; and even worse for families that spent money they could not afford on their child’s education, are part of the overwhelming numbers who now have to pay back student loans, or counted on these grads to help support parents and help pay for the education of younger siblings. And of course it’s painful for everyone when this generation returns home after four years of growing independence.

But could there be a positive side to this downside?

Ryan* is graduating from a top university this month. “But I can’t find a job…not even an internship,” he says. “What happened to ‘get into a good college and your future is made’? That’s what everybody said my whole life. What a load of crap.”

Ryan isn’t alone in his sentiments. On National Public Radio, college grads are saying exactly the same thing that I’m hearing in my office.

As I listen to Ryan and the young people on NPR, I wonder what parents and other adults can do to help them. And I find myself thinking about other college grads I have known in the past few years.

After a period of sometimes severe and lengthy disappointment, almost all of them moved along interesting and eventually rewarding paths toward goals that in many cases surprised them. Marty*, for example, who had majored in theater arts in college, could not find any kind of work – even waiting tables, like many other aspiring young actors, seemed to be an impossible dream. He did, however, find a job as an intern, with room and board, on a sustainable farm. To his surprise, he loved the grueling physical work; and he adored the farm’s owner, who was herself a young former math teacher. He also found himself becoming deeply involved in the sustainable community, working in his spare time with a local co-op that provided sustainable food to its members. Right now he is working full time managing the co-op. He thinks he may decide to go back to school to get a degree in urban planning and landscape architecture, to bring some of the ideas he has learned to an urban setting. But for the moment, he says, “I’m learning so much from this work that I can’t imagine I’ll ever find out in school.”

The psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut suggested that disappointment is a necessary part of healthy psychological development. The key, however, is that the disappointment be manageable, or “optimal.” Otherwise, we can be overwhelmed and paralyzed by the results of the disappointment. Parents, teachers and other adults can help by recognizing that dissatisfaction is not the same as failure. And that frustration and unhappiness can be triggers for creative problem-solving.

It is happening already. In a recent New York Times article, Hannah Seligson writes, “Two movements have sprouted to fight for this generation’s right to move out of the parental basement (or avoid it altogether): the Campaign for Young America and Fix Young America. In a way, they are the younger siblings of Occupy Wall Street, but with a nonpartisan agenda, more centralized leadership and one specific mission: to help young people find jobs.”

Joanna* was a brilliant writer who had won numerous awards for her writing and had been published in her college newspaper and literary journal throughout her undergraduate years. With the encouragement of a beloved writing teacher, she moved home to live with her parents while she worked as an intern at a local newspaper. “It was supposed to be an ‘in’ to the writing work I wanted to do,” she said. But what she actually did was clean out the refrigerator in the kitchen, run errands for the rest of the staff, and generally do work she found demeaning and hateful. “This is what I went to college for?” she demanded angrily.

Beneath the surface of her anger, Joanna, like many recent graduates, felt disappointed, betrayed, hurt and humiliated. Her parents wanted her to be happy, so they encouraged her to leave the internship. “But what else can I do?” she demanded. In fact, like many youngsters, Joanna began to do some creative problem-solving. Through conversations with one of the older staff members of the newspaper, she realized that she needed to be more proactive about asking for writing assignments. She offered to help some of the older staff deal with the internet and began ghost-writing some of their online material. Before long she was given a blog of her own, for which she was paid. After another six months, feeling that she was still not really respected as a member of the staff, she began looking for work with another online publication. Her work on the newspaper, it turned out, made her much more attractive to other publications, but the only job she was actually offered involved writing about something she knew nothing about and had no interest in – medical issues affecting the elderly. She took the job, in part because “there’s nothing else right now” and in part because she had learned “that you never know what might come out of a step like this.”

*names and identifying information changed to protect confidentiality and privacy

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