Do You Really Want a Job?

Ask any group of prospective college students and their parents about the goal of a college education and the answer, more often than not, will involve the words “job” or “career.” Students, especially students around their parents, often talk about what they want to do after graduation. The arc of these conversations is inevitable, particularly as families wrestle with the direct and indirect costs of higher education. It is, after all, an expensive proposition. But is employment really the goal for graduating college seniors? What if post-graduate employment is the wrong measure?

Emerging Adulthood by Jeffrey Arnett describes an increasingly recognizable path to adulthood for middle and upper middle class Americans. Beginning with late adolescence, the stages he outlines include college, a period of transitional employment and multiple residencies, often including a temporary return to a parental home, complicated developments with regard to love and marriage, graduate school for many, and then, finally, and often in the late 20s or early 30s, a feeling of adulthood and arrival. The 20s are complicated, Arnett notes, and an important period of development. Arnett does not claim that emerging adulthood is universal, but he does make some broad observations that indicate he believes it is increasingly relevant. Emerging adulthood has ever greater currency with a broad swath of social scientists.

A graduating college senior who fits Arnett’s model will have some very different expectations of life after college from earlier generations. She might be interested in a job, but she might just as likely seek travel and personal growth. Opportunities would be tempered, in her mind, by the responsibilities that might attach themselves to them. Emerging adults crave freedom and flexibility, so our senior very likely might avoid positions that would tie her down. She would be unlikely to marry, for example, or to have children for several years. Such a student would be less likely to go to a job fair with a definitive long-term career objective. She might not feel ready to accept certain kinds of employment challenges. Instead, she might be drawn to kinds of employment, or experiences, with finite limits in terms of time or scope.

The goal for emerging adults, Arnett writes, is an identity career that aligns interests with values. Sorting out shifting values, especially as communitarian values replace individualist priorities, is a challenge. Furthermore, the employment market may not be as keen on addressing the wants of potential employees. Savvy employers may use corporate social responsibility as a means to attract emerging adults. Extensive training or development and growth opportunities would similarly be attractive.

The traditional role of career development or career services offices in institutions of higher education is to help graduating students find gainful employment. These are the offices that sponsor resume workshops, mock interviews, vocational inventories and job fairs. They are at the very heart of how colleges and their students think about, implement and track post-graduate outcomes.

What would our graduating senior want from her college career service’s office? I aim to find out. Until then, Arnett’s observations can lead us to some potential areas to explore. These might include graduate school information and advising as a matter of course, post-graduate internships, and an extended networking and information base for what will most likely be a longer-transition to more traditional forms of employment.  Alumni job fairs, for instance, could be draws. Traditional approaches to career services would not be viewed as very helpful to an emerging adult.

Emerging adults will need different kinds of help, new kinds of support. If a college graduate sees life after college as one stage in her gradual development, career services offices and their larger institutions will have to change, rethinking what they do and reframing expectations.

David Potash