Grad Guide 2006
Emerging Adults

Laura Sessions Stepp
Washington Post reporter
Monday, April 10, 2006 11:00 AM

What does it mean to be a so-called "emerging adult" in America today? In her article, A Post-College Path to Somewhere , Post reporter Laura Sessions Stepp asked a few of this year's graduates what excites, energizes and worries them about life in the real world.

This discussion is part of a series created for The Post's Grad Guide , an interactive collection of stories, resources and information aimed at easing the transition of the Class of 2006.

The transcript follows below.


Laura Sessions Stepp: Good morning. Allow me to introduce myself. I am a reporter in the Style section of The Washington Post, and have written about children and adolescents (including college-aged) for 10 years. I welcome your questions.


Washington, D.C. : What does it say about our culture that we have all sorts of "labels" -- like "emerging adults" -- for our nation's graduates? Many of them have already been legal adults for three or more years now. Do we as a nation want to keep them in a state of suspended adolescence or do they want to keep themselves there?

Laura Sessions Stepp: That is an excellent question that I've asked myself frequently. I think it's a bit of both. Boomer parents have, for the most part, enjoyed their kids and invested money in them (some might say too much money). As a result it's hard for the parents to let go. One term that colleges now use is "helicopter parents" who hover over their "children" once they get to college. Young adults, having enjoyed such protection, are leery of stepping out on their own. I am of course speaking of families of middle and upper incomes. Young people in lower to modest income families have grown up fast.


Lusby, Md.: Hi Laura,

Would you know any "work-at-home" jobs that really worked? I hear about a lot in magazines that sound too good to be true. Please advise.

Laura Sessions Stepp: Hello. I'm presuming you're a new grad or relatively new grad. My bet would be it would be hard to work from home when you are just starting out because you don't have many credentials to sell and presumably little cash stowed away if times get tough. But I'm not the best person to ask. Another grad guide writer, Amy Joyce, will be doing a chat tomorrow at 11. And on Friday at noon, in this same space, a career coach, Lily Whiteman will discuss how to find jobs. You might send your question to either of them. Thanks for writing in.


Stafford, Va. : Thanks for the interesting article. I'm the mother of a high-school senior headed to college in the fall. She's going to a large state school here in Virginia. What sort of environment awaits her on a modern college campus?

Laura Sessions Stepp: Large state schools are a potpourri of opportunities and challenges. I'll speak to the social environment. She'll meet girls and guys a lot like her, and others way different. She'll be able to take part in campus politics or party all weekend, sing in a Madrigals chorus or hook up with the cute guy in her freshman humanities course. The point is: everything is her choice. College authorities won't be telling her what to do, outside a couple of freshman orientation sessions. Faculty may or may not be around to advise her; it will be up to her to seek them out.


St. Louis, Missouri: How do you think people's attitudes toward relationships dating, hooking up, etc.) change after graduation? Or is there no change at all?

Laura Sessions Stepp: As young people get older they do get more serious about dating. But they still think of serious relationships/marriage as something 10 or so years away, which leaves plenty of time to hook up, a pattern that can be hard to break. It gets harder to find interesting people post-college, b/c college is a ready-made, self-selected environment. Graduates who are over the bar/club scene have to find new ways to meet people. Which is why some of them move into workplace romance.


Tallahassee, Fla.: I am a 25-year-old college graduate heading to grad school. I just want to stress my frustration with the jobs available. It seems the only ones I can get are low paying ... low-skill customer service jobs. I feel like this is the new 21st-century factory work. Monotonous jobs that require little skill.

Laura Sessions Stepp: I sympathize, but let me add that you can learn skills in customer service jobs that will serve you well later. Like how to be courteous to jerks, how to be creative in helping people (and yourself) around bureaucratic red tape (all businesses have that). Think about the less obvious skills you're learning and maybe the job won't seem so awful.


Rockville, Md.: While I applaud your efforts to help young workers, I do not see The Post offering guidance to older workers. We are in need of help as well. What do you think? Thanks.

Laura Sessions Stepp: I will pass your comment on to our business section. If you read it regularly, you'll find that the Post actually carries a lot of such stories, just not packaged together like the Grad Guide. Good luck!


Bethesda, Md. : Come on -- $90,000 out of college? Are you freaking kidding me? Nice going for him though.

Laura Sessions Stepp: I know, I was surprised myself. But that's the financial industry for you. He will be under a lot of pressure come fall to show them he's worth that much money.


Washington, D.C.: I was particularly pleased to read about the plans of the three Howard University students featured. Did they give any insight into how their parents, the community and the university have helped to prepare them?

Laura Sessions Stepp: All three mentioned their parents without my prompting. One young man said his mother gave him a taste of "the good life" -- save your money, she told him, until you can buy quality stuff. The young woman said her family had been displaced by Katrina, and she wanted to help them out financially. The third, the other young man, said his father was his role model. They praised Howard for being a supportive place, but also wondered a bit about whether they could hack it in a white world. They actually didn't talk much about their communities.


Washington, D.C. : Laura, the people in your article seemed like focused, interesting, thoughtful young adults. Maybe a little hardened ... maybe not. But my question is -- where's the erosion of traditional values? These kids seemed to have plenty of them.

Laura Sessions Stepp: Good question. This generation actually holds to a lot of traditional values: home, government, helping others. That's according to research, and has been my experience as well. Where they differ with older folks is on some social issues - sexuality, for example, and race.


Washington, D.C.: Laura,

People like to go on about today's youth being "coddled" and "lazy." But let's be honest -- we've had decades upon decades of relative world peace and no draft, meaning little likelihood of large percentages of our friends and neighbors being shipped off across the globe and killed. Why wouldn't we be coddled by "Greatest Generation" standards? Isn't this what we're supposed to want for our youth -- peace and a better standard of living?

Current administration notwithstanding, of course.

Laura Sessions Stepp: Great point for youth from families of some means.


Annapolis, Md.: I finished college last summer with a CS degree. I've had three jobs since and it hasn't been a full year yet? Every offer I've received is based on a task within a contract.

I've happened to hit three very short duration tasks. Plus the good jobs seem to be the ones that require a security clearance. In addition, during interviews they are rarely up front with you. I've learned that unless you are well connected, the degree isn't worth too much.

Laura Sessions Stepp: You're not alone. Lots of companies contract out now as a cost-cutting measure. May I suggest you chat with my colleague Amy Joyce tomorrow at this time -- she's the workplace expert.


Philadelphia, Penn.: Hello. What does the level of student debt seem to be portending? Many articles note how current graduates undertake much more debt than previous graduates, but what does this mean long term? I have manageable undergrad debt right now, but is grad school really worth $700 per month payments to work in a nonprofit? We keep pushing back marriage, settling down, kids, etc. and we are living longer, but how is it possible to pay down debt, get a car, raise kids, save for retirement all at once? Increasingly, it seems to me that obscene student debt is more of a harm than a help. I may have been better off just getting a two year technical degree with little debt, solid pay, and job security. Thanks for your thoughts.

Laura Sessions Stepp: I hope you're reading some of the other questioners who make the same point. In my view, outstanding debt may be the number one hurdle today's grads face -- parents and their high school children should take a hard look at the facts before deciding on college plans.


Washington, D.C.: I have an observation. Today's baby boomer raised "children" (now adults) were groomed to do well when a curriculum or syllabus or pre-planned activity existed. To me, this explains why so many did well in school, but struggle after college. Post-college, there's no road map. What's your viewpoint of this observation?

Laura Sessions Stepp: I agree. College professors often say their students want to know exactly what is going to be on a test, exactly what they're required to write in a paper, etc.


Washington, D.C.: I don't think much has changed since I graduated college in the mid-80s, except one biggie: DEBT. Lots of it. It is disabling, and sometimes immobilizing to young grads. One would think that the trend would be back to fiscal reality (i.e., why not the do the first two years at NOVA instead of jumping in at Hobart, but the costs do not seem to deter young people these days). Sure, college costs are rising much faster than inflation, but the lines to get in to the big-name schools are as long as ever, cost be damned.

Laura Sessions Stepp: You make a good point, and I'm sending this out to all of you who are asking about debt. Big issue that needs lots of public discussion.


Fairfax, Va.: Are you seeing an increase, decrease or no change in the number of grads interested in working for the government at any level.

Laura Sessions Stepp: I don't have figures on that, but anecdotally I can say I've recently heard more grads talk about government jobs b/c they seem more secure. Also govt-supported, privately financed programs like Teach for America are very popular, giving young people a chance to do good for a couple of years (and defer payment on student loans.)


Arlington, Va.: Do you feel the current generation of graduates has a sense of entitlement with regards to starting salaries and how fast they should move up the ladder? If so, what do you think are the root causes of this mind set?

Laura Sessions Stepp: Some do, certainly, particularly relating to advancement. But many others are taking a look at economic realities and the salary/benefits they'll need to simply survive.


Middleburg, Va.: Adults keep asking graduating seniors, "what are you planning to do?" This is hard to answer if you don't have a clear career path ahead. What's the best answer to that annoying question?

Laura Sessions Stepp: It is annoying. Upwardly mobile Americans can't help asking things like: So what college are you going to? What are you going to major in? And so on. Instead of finding out what the person is doing right now that he/she enjoys. My advice: give two answers, what you're doing right now, and what you dream of doing someday. (Skip the "plans" part unless you actually have some.) Then turn the question around: ask the adult when he/she was your age, what his/her dream was and was it accomplished?


Maryland: In my experience (as a hiring manager) many recent grads are hindered by: (1)Unrealistic salary expectations for the market in which they are seeking jobs. (2) Unrealistic job expectations relative to their degree choice (a degree in liberal arts might be a wonderful education, but you're at a disadvantage when competing for a financial position). (3) Unrealistic expectations about hours, friendships and job issues (you're coming in as low person in the food chain -- it gets better eventually, but you're going to be dong grunt work). There also is not a set time frame whereby you will get promoted. Don't expect one.

Laura Sessions Stepp: Here's some advice for all you readers, just in.


Washington, D.C.: So if you were the parent of a 2006 12-year-old, what would be some advice for helping prepare them to be adults a few years down the road? My first reaction is always to think about how things were when I was a kid, but the more I learn and read the more I realize that maybe that's not the best way to proceed.

Laura Sessions Stepp: Start giving your kid jobs to do; get him/her used to responsibility.


Laura Sessions Stepp: Hey everybody,

Sorry I couldn't get to all your questions. Lots of unease out there, particularly financial. I've enjoyed this.

Laura Sessions Stepp


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