Skip to main content

College graduates, a job is just a job

By Peggy Drexler
updated 12:39 PM EDT, Tue May 20, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • As college seniors across the U.S. graduate, they worry about finding a job
  • Peggy Drexler: Most college graduates do not start out in their desired field
  • She says it's OK to take job that is not ideal for a while; job-hopping is normal
  • Drexler: If there's a new constant, it's that adaptability and flexibility are key to survival

Editor's note: Peggy Drexler is the author of "Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers and the Changing American Family" and "Raising Boys Without Men." She is an assistant professor of psychology at Weill Cornell Medical College of Cornell University and a former gender scholar at Stanford University. Join her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @drpeggydrexler. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- As college seniors across the country prepare to graduate, from the excitement over spring and looming freedom rises the familiar worry: Will I get a job? Will I get a job I actually want?

The answer to both, it seems, is a resounding, if utterly inconclusive, maybe.

A few weeks back, the U.S. Labor Department announced that while the job market is getting better -- unemployment among 2013 graduates is at 10.9%, down from 13% for recent graduates in 2012 -- it's still weaker than it was prerecession.

What's more, those who are working have increasingly settled for jobs outside their fields of study or for less pay than they'd expected. Some 260,000 college graduates were stuck last year working at or below the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, more than double the numbers of minimum wage-earning college grads in 2007.

Peggy Drexler
Peggy Drexler

A friend's daughter graduating this week from UC Berkeley with dual honors degrees in sociology and math and four years of experience working in sexual assault advocacy on campus will be spending the summer working at her local Williams-Sonoma -- and readying grad school applications -- after a number of dead-end interviews with women's rights groups. "And I feel grateful," she told me.

There is good news, however. While many pregraduates still express feeling a certain pressure to make the "right" decisions early on to make the most out of every moment working in such a competitive professional atmosphere, the truth is that the job you take tomorrow, next week or even next year does not have to set the tone for your professional career.

At a recent talk I gave to a writing workshop that a friend teaches at an East Coast university, the students had one big concern: How to avoid being "pigeonholed" if you're forced to take a first job that's less than your ideal.

While the Bureau of Labor Statistics does not track lifetime careers -- and no one really knows where the old statistic that people average seven job changes over the course of a lifetime came from -- studies do show that job tenure has slowly but consistently been in decline over the past few decades.

Job-hopping is now the new norm -- and while it's especially so during a person's early working years, it's pretty common in general. Numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that most workers is the United States have been at their job for under a year, and that the average length of time anyone spends at any given job is 4.4 years.

Stephanie, a friend of my daughter's, graduated from her Ivy League school two years ago. She imagined a career in magazine publishing -- she really wanted to be a beauty editor -- but ended up in finance instead. The money is good, and the job is fine, but it's not her passion. And so she has an end date in sight.

"I'm going to put in one more year and 'save up' for an unpaid internship in 2015," she told me. "I don't mind starting from the beginning, if it's something I really want to do."

A 2013 poll by consulting firm Accenture proves how quickly career plans can change once graduates enter the "real world." In a study of 1,000 graduating seniors and 1,000 recent graduates, 18% of pending 2013 graduates planned to get a graduate degree. By contrast, that number increased to 42% among working graduates. Some 15% of pregrads expected to earn less than $25,000 a year. The number of those who ended up with that salary or less? 33%.

College graduates are getting the message that planning too far ahead is an exercise in futility and perhaps limiting in itself. A survey conducted last year by Future Workplace found that 91% of millennials expect to stay in a job for less than three years (which could, in fact, add up to 15 to 20 jobs over the course of a lifetime).

And according to the Accenture poll, while 53% of graduates found full-time jobs in their field of study, 34% said they were willing to take the first job they were offered.

The truth is that most college graduates do not start out in their desired field, and endless life decisions will influence the path a college graduate's career takes over the next 40 or so years.

A 2013 study conducted by McKinsey & Company found that 41% of graduates from top universities -- the presumably best and brightest -- could not land jobs in their chosen field after graduation. In other words, it's tough out there.

The benefit to that, of course, is more time, even if forced, to explore a variety of areas of interest while feeling safe in the knowledge that there continue to be more job opportunities for those with a college education than for those without.

Which is why the best thing graduating seniors can do as they approach the working world may be to keep an open mind and chill out a bit. And recognize that life -- personally and professionally -- demands a willingness to change. Because if there's a constant in the ever-in-flux job economy, it's that adaptability and flexibility are key to survival.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 1:33 AM EST, Thu December 25, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT