It's college graduation season, and with the blooming of the cherry trees comes that cherished annual journalistic tradition: telling new graduates they're screwed in a way that no one else in the history of the world has ever been screwed. When it's actual recent graduates doing this fretting, I can understand, since being forcibly thrown into a job search is always a scary situation. But for their elders to be doing this worrying—elders who presumably have found some success as they got on in life—it strikes me as petty, self-serving fearmongering. So from someone back in academia after a decade at an office job, here's some real talk.
Your first job is probably going to suck.
That’s OK! Having a shitty job that’s not good for your career is going to disappoint your parents, sure. But you know what? It gives you more money than you’ve had before, money which, if you don’t care about your job, can be used for having just tons and tons of fun. You are now an adult, which means it’s OK to be naughty! Get drunk, take drugs, sleep with strangers! Having a shitty job means you don’t have to worry about the ramifications to your career if you show up at the office still drunk from the night before and vomit in a trash can, or bang the hot intern at the Christmas party, or do coke off your boss’s desk. Go nuts!
The point of an undergraduate degree is not to get you a job.
Sorry! We would’ve told you this before, but teenagers are kind of stupid and have a hard time grasping nebulous goals like “improving your character and/or life skills” so we have to give you concrete economic reasons to do stuff. Don’t get me wrong—statistically speaking, you will get paid lots more with an undergrad degree than without it. But did you really think all those psych classes were job training? Look, if we wanted to train you to do things, we would give public universities enough funding so that students aren't forced to spend all their time in 450-person lecture classes. Your undergraduate degree wasn't about learning how to do a specific job. It was about learning how to do a job in general, and how to be a decent human being. Beyond that, don’t expect anything.
A college degree has almost never guaranteed anyone a job.
There are some exceptions to this (Ivy Leaguers becoming traders/consultants; lucking into a temporary short supply of workers as happened with computer programmers in the mid-'90s), and some of your more skills-focused degrees, like accounting and engineering, will always give you a reasonably good chance of getting hired. But you shouldn’t pick these majors unless they actually interest you! Having a career straight out of undergrad that you hate is not better than not immediately having a career, trust me. You will just end up switching careers later and then instead of having a fun post-college experience, you'll feel like you missed out.
Grad school is great, but only if you like it, and never right out of undergrad.
I love grad school! I think people who would be good academics should definitely go to grad school. But here are some things you should know about me: (1) I write papers for fun; (2) I enjoy making graphs; and (3) I make $14,000 a year. It’s not really more secure than being unemployed, and it’s way less fun than having a shitty job (see point #1). Please, please go enjoy your 20s and build up some actual life experience and independent ideas that you can then use in your research—this has helped me as an academic more than I can ever say. And then only go to grad school if you want what grad school is offering, not because you dislike the uncertainty of a job search. You’re just going to have to undergo an even more stressful job search at the end of your post-grad career anyway.
Building up debt in your 20s is the economically responsible thing to do.
You are funding job training that will get you paid more in the future! Your credit card loans are allowing you to get in on the ground floor while also not starving/living in Canarsie. Accept this, and instead of accidentally building up debt while feeling guilty about it, build up debt deliberately and with a plan for how it’s going to help you. You’re going to rack up tens of thousands of dollars in debt anyway; at least do it in a way that benefits you in the long term.
Panic about college is almost always humanities majors having hard-science expectations.
I don’t know where this idea came from that doing well in college sets you up for life, but remember all those stories about starving poets and broke academics? Those are the humanities and social-science people! Sure, the hard-science people have labs and government funding and stuff, but you’re not going to be able to get that kind of bank unless you're the kind of person who’s truly interested in hard-sciences stuff to begin with. If you’re a humanities person, then you’re going to be kind of broke for a while. Again, sorry we didn’t tell you that before, but it’s not unusual. At least you don’t have any responsibilities!
This is all really normal.
If you're graduating college right now, there's probably a great temptation for you to feel sorry for yourself. Don’t! You are, I swear, in the exact same position college grads have been in since we started sending everyone to college a few decades back. If you see people in their 30s and 40s who are doing well, then have faith you can get there too, because these Olds started at the same place you are right now: just out of school, unemployable, and broke. You aren’t being deprived of anything you’re owed, and you haven’t been screwed over by the unfair hand of fate. You’re just 22 and totally lack any job experience. You have to start somewhere. Just try to have fun while you’re doing it.
Mike Barthel finished his BA in creative writing and politics in 2001, spent seven year as an accountant and musician in New York, got a master's in media studies, and is now getting his PhD in political communication while teaching undergraduates about the Internet.