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10 April, 2016 00:00 00 AM

Will You Sprint, Stroll or Stumble Into a Career?

Will You Sprint, Stroll or Stumble Into a Career?

(Part I)

At the age of 18, G. Stanley Hall left his home in the tiny village of Ashfield, Mass., for Williams College, just 35 miles away, with a goal to “do something and be something in the world.” His mother wanted him to become a minister, but the young Stanley wasn’t sure about that plan. He saw a four-year degree as a chance to explore.
Though Hall excelled at Williams, his parents, who were farmers, considered his undergraduate years a bit erratic. He didn’t think he had the requirements for a pastor, but nonetheless enrolled in Union Theological Seminary in New York after graduation. The big city was intoxicating, and living there persuaded him to abandon his religious studies. After securing a loan, he set off for Germany to study philosophy, travel and visit the theaters, bars and dance halls of Berlin.
“What exactly are you doing over there?” his father sternly asked. Hall added physiology and physics to his academic pursuits and told his parents he was thinking about getting a Ph.D. in philosophy. “Just what is a Doctor of Philosophy?” his mother wanted to know.
His parents wanted him to come home and get a real job, and even Hall, having “scarcely tried my hand in the world to know where I can do anything,” wondered what was next. He was out of money and in debt, so he returned home after his parents refused to support him financially. He was 27 years old.
Hall’s story is similar to that of many young Americans today. They go off to college, resist pressures to choose a job-connected major, then drift after graduation, often short of money and any real plan. But here’s the difference: Stanley Hall grew up in a totally different America, the one of the mid-1800s.
We think this kind of lengthy takeoff is relatively new, but even in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when the economy offered fewer career choices, there were college graduates who roamed through their third decade of life. Hall was an outlier, of course, as most of his generation launched into adulthood right after high school, if they even went. But his story might serve to lessen the anxiety of today’s parents about their own children’s long stumble toward independence: Stanley Hall went on to great success.
He eventually earned an advanced degree in psychology, taught at Antioch College, Harvard and Johns Hopkins and became president of Clark University in Massachusetts, where he developed a fascination with the period in life between childhood and adulthood. He founded the American Psychological Association and in 1904 wrote an influential book about a new life stage he called “adolescence.”
Hall described this transitional period — between ages 14 and 24 — as full of “storm and stress.” But in reality, the adolescent stage in the early 1900s was much shorter than Hall imagined. Teenagers were able to get a solid full-time job right after high school, followed quickly by marriage and parenthood. It wasn’t until around the middle of the last century that the job market began requiring that a college degree be added to the equation, and with the G.I. Bill allowing returning World War II veterans to go for free, enrollments boomed.
That postwar era cemented in our minds an idea that remains to this day: Teenagers graduate from high school, earn a college degree, secure a job, and move out of their childhood home — all by the age of 22 or so.
But by the 1960s, as Americans started spending more time in college, the trend of a relatively quick launch to adulthood was ending. Census figures show that the number of 19- to 24-year-olds living with their parents started edging up, from 30 percent in 1960, to 35 percent in 1980, to 47 percent today.
The difference between the “boomerang generation” of the 1960s and 1970s and now is that manufacturing was still the foundation of the economy, allowing more than one pathway to solid middle-class jobs. The 1970s marked the last full decade when a large slice of the population didn’t need a college degree for financial success. The recession of the early 1980s effectively killed off manufacturing, and with the next decade’s technology revolution, the wage premium for attending college started to speed up, turning into a runaway train. In 1983, the wage premium — how much more a typical bachelor’s degree recipient earns compared to a high school graduate — was 42 percent. Today, it surpasses 80 percent.
The huge run-up in the number of undergraduate and graduate students — eight million more than in 1980, according to the National Center for Education Statistics — has led to further delays in passing the milestones of adulthood, forever changing how we view the transition from education to the work force. In the 1980s, college graduates achieved financial independence, defined as reaching the median wage, by the time they turned 26, according to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. In 2014, they didn’t hit that mark until their 30th birthday.
In the 1990s, Jeffrey Jenson Arnett, a psychology professor at the University of Missouri, interviewed young people around the country and determined that his subjects felt both grown up and not quite so grown up at exactly the same time. This led Dr. Arnett to conclude that the period between 18 and 25 was a distinct stage separate from both adolescence and young adulthood. In 2000, he published a paper defining this slice of life as “emerging adulthood,” a phrase that immediately entered the cultural lexicon, especially for parents trying to figure out why their children were struggling to launch into adulthood.
“Emerging adulthood is a time of life when many different directions remain possible,” Dr. Arnett wrote, “when little about the future has been decided for certain, when the scope of independent exploration of life’s possibilities is greater for most people than it will be at any other period of the life course.”
By the time I caught up with Dr. Arnett, he had moved to Clark University. In the fall of 2014, 14 years after he had coined the term, I was curious whether the journey to adulthood was getting even longer.
“Absolutely,” he said. “The changes that are happening are permanent structural changes that have only sped up all over the world.” The biggest change, he said, is the move to an information economy that requires even more education and job-hopping in one’s 20s.
For today’s emerging adults, Dr. Arnett told me, a college degree may be the biggest determinant of whether they launch into a sustaining career, but it is not the only factor that separates the successful from the drifters. If that were the case, recent graduates wouldn’t be standing in the unemployment line or settling for jobs that don’t require a bachelor’s degree. It’s how they navigate their college years that matters the most.
In the journey to adulthood, they are either Sprinters, Wanderers or Stragglers.
Sprinters: Ready, Willing and Able
Sprinters start fast right out of the gate. They pick a major early on and stick with it, enabling a progression of internships that look more and more impressive with each year. Some have the perfect job lined up on graduation; others are laserlike in their focus, moving from job to job up the career ladder. They have little or no student-loan debt, freeing them to pick job opportunities without regard to pay.
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But speed alone doesn’t define this group. Some are slow but methodical, assembling the building blocks for a successful career by investing in their own human capital, perhaps in graduate or professional school, before hitting the job market.
Lily Cua at 1776, a start-up incubator in Washington, D.C., that attracts the highly focused. Credit Gabriella Demczuk for The New York Times
Lily Cua is a classic Sprinter. Well before she got her degree in finance from Georgetown University, she secured a plum position as a consultant with PricewaterhouseCoopers. The job came as so many do these days, from a summer internship. The recruiter, a Georgetown alumnus, was impressed with her Chinese minor and high grades — signals, he told her, that she was willing to take on demanding assignments. By the end of the summer Ms. Cua was offered a full-time job, 10 months before graduation. “It wasn’t my dream to work there,” she admitted. But she knew it would provide a launching pad. “I wanted to get skills I didn’t have coming out of college. I wanted to work with really smart people. I wanted to be mentored by someone looking out for me.”
I met Ms. Cua at 1776, an incubator in Washington, D.C., that assists some 200 start-ups. It’s crawling with Sprinters like her. After two years with PricewaterhouseCoopers, she left to start a business with a college acquaintance. Their company has already raised more than $500,000 for an online marketplace for perks and benefits employers can give their workers. Deciding to leave a Fortune 500 company was “all-consuming,” she said, but she recognized that the early 20s, without a spouse or mortgage, are the best time to take risks. It’s easy to start over again.
That makes Sprinters unafraid to change jobs frequently. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that young adults born in the early 1980s held, on average, six different jobs between the ages of 18 and 26, and by their 27th birthday only 14 percent of college graduates had a job that lasted at least two years.
    —The New York Times


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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman

Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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