I feel sorry for those just entering the workforce:
- New employees who are performing low-skill jobs but still required to have college degrees (and the debt that goes with it).
- Applicants who are suffering indignities from callously indifferent HR departments.
- Graduates who are always being the intern, but never getting hired full-time.
- Young interviewees who at one time may have been mentored by older, experienced professionals but now are summarily dismissed for minor flaws (“There are so few jobs out there right now for young people, and there are a lot of people looking for a job. The moment you say that [you’ve never picked up an issue] to me, the interview is over, basically, in my mind,” says O Magazine’s creative director).
Education? Who cares? Skills? Forget it. Personal integrity? Bah! The rulebook has been thrown out the window. Much of what once may have been true regarding good practices for finding work are true no longer. The old promise of “work hard, do well in school” no longer applies.
It’s a brave new world in the post-Recession economy.
I have nieces and nephews who are old enough to be in the workforce, and my own children are not too far behind. If any of them came to me for career advice, what would I tell them? It would depend on who was asking and what type of work, but there are three pieces of advice that I would never give.
1. “You can be whatever you want to be.” Anyone who takes a moment to think about this will realize that it is, of course, patently absurd. There is inequality inherent in all of life. Different people have different sets of skills and abilities, and different amounts of physical, intellectual, or financial resources from which to draw.
To say that anyone can achieve anything would mean that we are all equally capable and have the same opportunity. And that is just not true. There is a reason that there are no astronauts who are quadriplegics, or no blind fire fighters, or no violin players with two amputated arms.
These are admittedly extreme examples. But for most professions, there are minimum sets of requirements that a person must meet to be successful, and not everybody is equally qualified. Dreaming about doing something that you are not capable of doing does not help; in fact, it can be counterproductive. And as one writer recently said on the subject, “the outliers are not a more practiced version of you and me. They’re just better.”
So to tell a young person that they are capable of anything really only sets them up for failure. How can they deal effectively with not being who they want to be if they never seriously considered the possibility of failure? Strategic encouragement is fine; flowery, pie-in-the-sky blither blather is not. It sets young people adrift in an apathetical world without the skill set to navigate toward a successful, meaningful life.
Next week: Three Pieces, Part II