Illustrated by Emily Turner.
If you’re one of the millions of twentysomethings graduating from college this season, you’re likely familiar with the bittersweet feeling that comes with trading in the relative safety and security of a college experience — one that can include a meal plan, required courses, and a fairly self-contained existence — for a future of opportunity, possibility, and plenty of unknowns. For years, you didn’t have to think too hard about what to do next. Now, you do.
That's one reason it’s easy to freak out if you haven't landed your “dream job,” or any job at all, if you've happened upon giant roadblock, or veered off-course entirely. There are a lot of people in this boat: The U.S. Labor Department announced that while the job market is getting better, it’s still weaker than it was pre-recession. A poll by career-networking website AfterCollege found that 83% of graduates will not have landed a job by the time they collect their diploma. Those who do secure offers, meanwhile, are increasingly settling for gigs outside their fields of study or for less pay than they’d perhaps imagined earning.
A friend of my daughter’s, an art history major, had her eye on a job as a gallery assistant, but after a few unfruitful interviews accepted a job working in advertising, instead — lucrative, to be sure, but not her ideal. Her former roommate, meanwhile, scored an assistant job at a prestigious fashion magazine, for which she will earn $28,000 a year — barely half of a single year’s worth of tuition to the Ivy League school from which she’s graduating. By all measures, it’s the job she worked hard to get; now, she’s forced to live with four roommates (perhaps not in the Village apartment of their dreams) in order to accommodate it. She’s not complaining, just readjusting.
Facing down the reality of the job market isn’t just about checking your expectations, though, or even “settling” for a job that you’re not sure you want. It is, however, about realizing that you needn’t start in on your capital-L “Life” right out of the gate, despite all the pressures to the contrary. It’s also about recognizing that you may not even know what that life is supposed to look like. The real world is about ebbs and flows and flexibility and change, something that many hard-charging graduates don’t get much experience with over four years of college.
My son is one example of someone whose career path has been varied, but never wasteful. In college, he was a White House intern and a night doorman at a Manhattan hotel in the theater district. Later, he spent time working as a magazine writer, in hotel hospitality, and in fashion advertising. He went to law school for a bit, and then got a job with a womenswear label. From each and every one of these careers he collected valuable tools that eventually gave him the education and confidence to launch his own company, a line of refined casual wear for men and boys. If you ask him, I think he’d say he’s finally found his calling. But, he wouldn’t have found it without the necessary search.
I get that it’s tempting to want to make the most out of every professional moment, especially when the work environment is so competitive and others seem to be succeeding at ever-younger ages. But, the job you take tomorrow, next week, or even next year does not have to set the tone for your professional career, and it very likely won’t. Science backs me up here: Studies show that job tenure has been in steady decline over the past few decades. Job-hopping is now the norm — and while it’s especially so during those years right after college, it’s pretty common in general. Numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that most workers is the U.S. have been at their current jobs for under a year, and that the average length of time anyone spends at any given job is 4.4 years.
Translation: Most of you won’t start out in your desired field. What's more, the field you think you desire might change as you get older and your interests and priorities shift. It’s important to remember that figuring out what you don’t want is as critical as figuring out what you do want. Every side trip off your imagined “path” is just another learning experience that will help refine what it is that makes you happy — professionally and personally. As they say, timing is everything. Willingness to adapt is paramount — nothing's permanent. Optimism is more powerful than angst. The right path may not look as you imagined it would, but that doesn’t make it any less right.