What You Can’t Tell Your Students Anymore

“Go forth unafraid.” That was the bold and buoyant motto of the Manhattan high school my daughters graduated from in 2009 and 2012. The maxim captured the spirit that I had long lived by and that had helped me brave the turbulent seas of journalism and later academe. It also complemented advice that for years I had liberally doled out to my children and students: “Do what you love and the money will follow.”

But as I witness a steady stream of students facing graduation as they would the guillotine, I realize that those sayings, like typewriters, denote another time. For a generation burdened by crippling debt, a bleak job market, and an ever-expanding internship industry, “Go forth unafraid” is as useful as “Have a nice day.” Today’s vexing realities now render reckless my past advice to students simply to do what they loved, for a succession of unpaid internships, rather than money, could well follow.

So the question is: What do I tell these bright young people—my children and students, products of a generation that forfeited a carefree childhood to gain entry to selective schools like New York University, where I teach? On little sleep, they volunteered at soup kitchens, held impressive internships, excelled in academics and as athletes, dancers, newspaper editors, and chess champions.

What do we now tell this generation of hard-working idealists who have done everything right as they face the possibility of long-term un- or underemployment alongside college debt unlike any amassed by previous generations? Most of what we previously believed—that college debt is good, that internships lead to jobs, or that students should simply follow their passions irrespective of compensation—seems no longer true. So what is?

This academic year I’ve braced myself for the inevitable questions from my students, and from my own daughters, who are in their freshman and senior years. I do not have the luxury of time to revise a lifetime of beliefs or reassuring sayings, but for now, at least, I believe this much is true:

  • This generation of strivers is far more accomplished and prepared than their forerunners were for the challenges that lie ahead. Its members have a proven work ethic, even if many of them have never known the rigor of waiting tables, painting houses, or mowing lawns.

    They may have to learn. They will need to be far more adaptable and creative than previous college graduates were. While pursuing work as environmental activists, journalists, academics, or novelists, they may need to consider work as waiters, painters, dog walkers, or other less-satisfying positions. In other words, they may have to learn what actors have long known: There is honorable work to be found while pursuing your dream. We can’t all do what we love everyday.

  • This generation is far more global than those who came before, and far more intuitive about technology. Graduates will have more opportunities to work in other countries, and will more readily become entrepreneurs.
  • They will also have to give up some past behaviors. Over the years, I’ve seen many students decline wonderful job offers because they were unwilling to leave New York. Now they will need to be far more willing to leave home, especially if home is a major city like New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles, where rents and overall living costs are astronomical. Decaying towns and cities with low rents and untapped opportunity beckon the skills and pluck of this technologically savvy generation.

    Given the high cost of living, today’s graduates must be far more realistic about the prospects for a living wage in whatever field they choose. Liberal-arts education and pragmatism are not mutually exclusive. Whatever they decide to do, they must factor in the real cost of living and be willing to accept the lifestyle that their chosen profession affords.

  • This generation of graduates is more environmentally aware, which will hopefully make them less inclined to overly consume energy and the designer labels and useless objects that have come to define a modern, middle-class American life.
  • Unless they have a trust fund (and even if they do), this generation’s members will need to avoid the trap of perpetual internships. Employers will never have an incentive to hire as long as there is an endless supply of well-educated people willing to work free. A decent job, even outside one’s desired field, beats long-term un- or underemployment, and it’s easier to find work once already employed.

In the end, flexibility and a healthy dollop of optimism will be required of this new crop of college-degree holders, whose aspirations may outstrip opportunities. As they navigate an uncharted course, those of us to whom they turn for guidance will need to rethink our go-to words of wisdom that, like telegrams, are fading relics.

Pamela Newkirk is a professor of journalism at New York University.

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