a spirit of responsibility in an age of opportunity

Today’s college graduates are often called the boomerang generation, a reference to their tendency to return home after graduation. I often joke with students about this, suggesting that they get their resume and job search in gear early so they won’t end up living in their parent’s basement.

It’s no joke, unfortunately, as I indicated in the essay that led off this series. Good jobs are scarce, and even if the economy improves they are lots of more qualified people waiting in line. A sense of entitlement complicates things, since it often means recent grads are waiting for the job to come to them. It won’t.

There is lots of advice out there, but I would suggest the most important is to quit watching old TV shows on Hulu and find something to do. And I don’t mean anything to do. I mean something important to do.

Something important probably starts with doing something around the house, if that’s where you are living. Parents have often made heroic sacrifices to put their offspring through college. Helping with the dishes seems reasonable, but doing it willingly and cheerfully seems appropriate.

But I have something different in mind.

First, find real work. I don’t just mean get a job at McDonald’s. I mean find something to do that keeps your skills fresh and your mind alert, even if you have to volunteer.

If you want to be in marketing, start and manage a social media outreach for your church. If you want to be a writer or editor, get a job in a bookstore where you can see what people are reading, or volunteer to help with the newsletter for a local non-profit. Go teach English in China.

When we are getting started, learning is as important as earning, because it provides a foundation for future success. And if and when the jobs come back, you have to show you were staying on top of things and being productive. And responsible.

But here’s a better idea: start something yourself. Deliver a service. Learn to sell it. The real opportunity is to create some fresh and important. Yes, I know college didn’t really prepare you for that. But every job you might want was created by some guy who was willing to start something. You might as well be that guy.

Let’s face it. Lifetime security and benefits in the service of big business is not actually as attractive as your parents thought it was, or as likely as you thought it was. It’s time for plan B. And plan B involves personal responsibility for innovation and excellence in a market that’s crowded with hype and mediocrity.

So find some books on innovation and entrepreneurship. When you stay up at night brainstorming and researching your idea on the internet you may be on to something.

Too gutsy for you? Take a job in sales. Join a multilevel marketing company. There are always jobs in sales, especially in down market. If you learn to sell stuff, you can learn to sell yourself. (And note that shy people are often very good at this, since they aren’t too full of themselves.) To sell either stuff or yourself well requires asking better questions, practicing a little humility and solving other people’s problems.

This is much more important than it seems. Doing something is a responsible way to exercise thoughtful stewardship of your gifts and opportunities. And it gets you out of the house.

You’ve finished college. It’s time for your education to begin.

This is part of a series, “it’s a jungle out there.” It focuses on college graduates in a tough economy. Search “jungle” on this blog for other essays in the series.

I hope current and former students (as well as educators and parents) will reply to and share this post, encouraging a conversation that will help me understand and respond thoughtfully to this issue. Thanks.

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