It’s commencement season on college campuses, which means plenty of speeches by famous and not-so-famous people giving advice to students about what their lives will be like after the bachelor’s degree.
Scan any commencement address and you’re likely to see a reference or two to taking risks and learning from failure. But such advice often falls on deaf ears. After all, today’s graduates have been largely conditioned to avoid risk as much as possible up to this point in their lives.
Graduating from college has simply become another hoop to jump through in life, much like the undergraduate years have turned into a race to achieve the best résumé with all the right markers: double majors, multiple internships, and a slew of extracurricular activities.
No wonder employers complain that recent college graduates are unable to make independent decisions on the job — they never really had to make one, especially in college.
On campus, students had a slew of advisers helping them navigate everything from picking classes that would allow them to graduate on time to negotiating problems with roommates. Student advisers now make up nearly a third of professional jobs on campuses. In the classroom, students followed structured and linear academic calendars — normally five courses during 15-week semesters — with plenty of breaks in between.
The working world that many of these students enter a few weeks or a few months after graduation is mostly unstructured, with competing priorities and decisions to make on the fly. Employers tell me that too many of today’s college graduates lack critical-thinking and problem-solving skills.
“The ability to handle change is one of the most important attributes we’re looking for in new hires,” said Anne Voller, vice president for talent acquisition at Macy’s. “I need you to be comfortable being uncomfortable.”
For many 20-somethings, life to this point has been like a board game, with a goal of getting to the end quickly while picking up as many game pieces as possible. But what’s the prize at the end of this game, the coveted six-figure salary at Goldman Sachs or the consultant’s gig at McKinsey? And once they achieve that, what’s next for them?
Andrew Yang, the founder of Venture for America, a program modeled after Teach for America that places recent college graduates in start-ups, told me that more students need to take more detours into unfamiliar territory before, during, and right after college.
“The smartest people who go to the best colleges, and have the widest range of options, take the safest paths,” Yang said.
Yang’s hope is that graduates, particularly those from elite colleges, will learn to take risks and discover other career pathways than the narrow selection too many of them now follow to Wall Street, consulting companies, or law school and business school.
The aversion to taking risks seems to follow most recent college graduates into their careers. There is evidence, for example, that today’s young people are switching jobs less than previous generations. Research shows that job-hopping in your 20s actually boosts your chances for more satisfying and higher-paying work in the decades that follow.
Henry Siu, a professor at the Vancouver School of Economics at the University of British Columbia, calls it “job shopping” for a better match. He was part of a team of economists that found increased mobility in a person’s 20s leads to higher earnings later on in life when people are less able to move or can’t easily abandon the skills they have learned.
College should prepare graduates to be “occupationally footloose,” Siu told me, meaning they could perform a variety of entry-level jobs in different occupations while they are young.
Perhaps colleges need to start following the advice of their own commencement speakers and build learning environments where their students can be creative, try things out, take risks, and on occasion, fail. Real-life lessons in failure will make that bachelor’s degree much more valuable than just hearing stories about taking risks on graduation day.