Point of View

Recent graduates suffering curse of the great attitudes

November 15, 2013 

The Triangle is home to arguably the largest concentration of excellent universities and research institutions in the world, so we take our college graduates seriously.

A recent article in the Huffington Post posited that recent college graduates are unhappy because they expected to receive rewards upon graduation that are analogous to unicorns flying over beautiful fields of blossoming flowers.

They apparently believe they will be given jobs at higher salaries and better working conditions – with no actual work experience at all – than the jobs, salaries and working conditions that their parents currently have after decades of experience and the same university degrees. Their delusions are based on the stellar promise of a new generation that has been told since birth that they were the best, smartest, most beautiful human beings who have ever existed.

I work with this generation daily, and they are not that delusional, but a genuine problem with their expectations does in fact exist.

I call it the Curse of Great Attitudes. They are not delusional about unicorns, although their sincere desires might seem equally unrealistic because recent graduates almost all demand a satisfying work life upon graduation. They have been told their whole lives not to settle for anything less. Story after story demonstrates – and applauds – that recent grads want a good balance between work and life – to do something they enjoy while also doing something important and meaningful that either improves the planet or at least does not harm it.

They are a generation that grew up playing video games in which they saved entire worlds. They were told to follow their passions and never settle for anything that makes them unhappy. They want to work cooperatively to ensure that everyone gets a trophy, and they actively dislike the idea of competition where winning requires anyone else to lose.

And they have been told that they are the most intelligent students ever, with empirical evidence in the form of ever-inflating GPAs and standardized test scores, so they genuinely believe they are destined for and capable of great things.

In other words, they have great attitudes! They want to work cooperatively to make the world a better place and ensure that everyone has an enjoyable life, where people work to live, not live to work, just as every single one of us wishes for our own children. Could there be anything wrong with such great attitudes? Only one huge, perhaps insurmountable problem: These attitudes are entirely inconsistent with the vast majority of jobs available.

Certainly a minority of jobs make the world a better place where employees enjoy healthy work and life balances. I have such a job so I know they exist. However – and very important – the vast majority of jobs are not like this. In fact, it is extremely difficult to argue that even 10 percent of available jobs meet these qualifications.

You could easily argue that the majority of all companies and jobs actually harm the planet, notably industries with high job growth like Walmart, oil, agricultural chemicals and GMOs, as oft-cited examples among many others.

At least until society and human nature change dramatically, the vast majority of businesses will continue to operate as hierarchies with strict rules rather than have employee flexibility – tracking hours worked more than worker satisfaction.

This all leads to an unavoidable conflict that I over-simplify with the old 90/10 rule: 90 percent of college graduates will only be happy in 10 percent of the available jobs. It is an imbalance with the undeniable force of mathematics. Graduates are so unhappy because the vast majority of available jobs do not match with their great attitudes – not because they are delusional. It is as simple – but perhaps as intractable – as that.

Dr. Frederick Parker is a teaching assistant professor of economics at N.C. State University.

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