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by Michelle George on Feb 22, 2018
My husband and I were visiting my son at college recently, and we treated him to dinner at a local restaurant. The waitress who greeted us was my son’s friend. She took the time walking between reception and booth to catch up. She graduated two years ago with a biochemistry degree, and is paying the bills and her looming college loans by waiting tables. She said she has flooded the market with resumes and applications, and is just grateful she is working. After the high expectations tied to graduation subsided, she narrowed her focus to staying employed and paying the bills. The most frustrating part is she is not an aberration. My son also works in the food industry to help pay the bills. His fellow employees include mainly graduates. Two of the cooks at his restaurant hold master’s degrees. The same is true across town. Granted, this is a college town, so the number of college graduates is above average, but the lack of professional and academic positions is daunting. As a teacher, I constantly extol the value of education. I tell my students college often is the key to equality in our prosperous nation. These days, however, I am feeling less confident. The “rules” have changed for our Millennials, and I am at a bit of a loss when counseling my students.
When I was in school, this maxim held true, Study hard, go to college, earn a degree, get a job: American dream achieved. Now, not so much. According to a study by labor economist Stephen Rose, even though the number of graduates who are significantly overqualified for their jobs has dropped from 48 percent from earlier studies to 25 percent today, that is still one quarter of all graduates. The pay gap has actually increased substantially. In 1980, overqualified grads made 35 percent less than their effectively placed colleagues. In 2014, the difference was 48 percent for women and 50 percent for men (Mulhere). On top of that is the staggering amount of student debt. According to Debt.org, the average 2016 graduate owes about $37,172; that is up 6 percent from the previous year. This does not mean higher education is worthless. Far from it. What it does mean is we as educators need to recognize our old paradigms don’t always fit our students’ needs. Promising that a college degree equals wealth, success, and unmitigated joy just doesn’t fly, and probably never did. Take heart, I have come to the realization that some old truths still ring true.
Read a few success articles, books, or take a look around. Working hard still works. It seems in our quest for success, many of us have forgotten to share the struggle. We don’t always teach that lesson anymore. Today, a person can get the answer to a challenging problem by asking Alexa while lounging in bed. The recipe and prepared makings for a gourmet meal can be delivered to your doorstep, and the next episode of your favorite serial is waiting just seconds behind the last. Our students are learning complete gratification is expected, and right now. As teachers, I think it is part of our task to reintroduce the struggle. Hard is good and failure is a natural part of learning. If we remove challenging experiences in our school settings, we hamstring our students when they struggle on their own. Learning strategies for when we fail is an integral part of education.
The rules have indeed changed, but we can help our students uncover the new rules. The resume is one great example. When I was a new graduate, my resumeé was organized chronologically. Gaps in work history were taboo and content was relatively standard. Today, it is not so much what you know, but what you can do. Most applications for higher-level positions go through a computer-filter that looks for keywords, verbs mostly, that align with the specific skill set delineated for that position. Applicants who do not use the right words will never advance to the next stage of the hiring process. Different industries have different formats and requirements. It is not our job to know all of the intricacies of each profession. The information is out there. We can help our students learn to find it for themselves.
My ultimate takeaway is this: Yes, the rules for our young students have changed, and their economic future is ambiguous at best. I don’t have all of the answers. But I do know these three precepts have proven true for me. I hope my students can find hope and direction in them as well.
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