Opinion: Burned-out millennials need careers, not just jobs

A 2016 GALLUP survey found that 60 percent of young adults said they were open to other job opportunities, and 55 percent said they didn’t feel engaged at work. / BLOOMBERG FILE PHOTO/MICHAEL OKONIEWSKI
A 2016 GALLUP survey found that 60 percent of young adults said they were open to other job opportunities, and 55 percent said they didn’t feel engaged at work. / BLOOMBERG FILE PHOTO/MICHAEL OKONIEWSKI

NEW YORK – At a time when lots of attention is being paid to inequality, poverty and the travails of the working class, it might seem callous to worry about the problems of the educated elite. But there are important reasons to be concerned about the fates of recent college graduates. First, a healthy economy needs to make optimal use of talent — if smart people are funneled into useless or counterproductive tasks, their skills and the resources spent educating them will go to waste. Second, when educated people’s expectations are frustrated by a dysfunctional economic system, they can turn their formidable talent and energy toward disrupting that system, leading to social unrest.

So when educated millennials talk about being fed up with their careers, policy makers ought to listen. A recent essay by Anne Helen Peterson gained attention for characterizing the millennial experience as one of “burnout,” describing the author’s own frustrations with a stymied academic career and crushing student loans.

But what exactly is ailing educated young people? One problem is that too many are trying to become professors. The end of the university expansion of the 20th century, as well as efforts by schools to restrain spiraling costs, has led to the near-disappearance of the coveted tenure-track jobs:

Ph.D. students spend their time ensconced in an academic environment, where success equals professorship. Their role models and advisers are all professors. But the resulting monomaniacal focus on academia often causes them to miss out on the burgeoning universe of rewarding, lucrative private-sector jobs, and instead consigns them to being low-paid adjuncts or precarious postdocs as their student loans go unpaid.

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Meanwhile, other formerly reliable career options for those with humanities degrees are drying up. The demand for lawyers, journalists, teachers and government workers is anemic and shows no signs of recovering

The system offers little guidance. It’s not simply that educated people aren’t getting jobs — in fact, their unemployment rate is just 2.1 percent:

Instead, their careers are taking too long to get started. In addition to the many years spent in classrooms rather than earning money, young people are forced to spend years navigating a bewildering jungle of jobs that didn’t exist 10 years ago — social media marketer, growth hacker, data technician. Other than hapless university career counselors, stripped-down job websites and online forums full of unreliable chatter, there is no one to help educated young people through the maze.

The knowledge that they might be missing out on better opportunities, and the frustration of not knowing where they should go next, might be one reason millennials have such low commitment to the organizations where they work. A 2016 Gallup survey found that 60 percent of young adults said they were open to other job opportunities, and 55 percent said they didn’t feel engaged at work.

And of course, not knowing where to go next can be especially nerve-wracking when student debt collectors are breathing down one’s neck. Even measured against rising wages for the college-educated, student loans have increased:

In other words, what educated millennials need isn’t just jobs; they need help plotting a course that will reliably lead them to upward mobility and justify the expense of their education.

But how can career paths be charted in a world where work changes rapidly? New technologies and tools must be brought to bear. Job-search sites and government researchers could team up to outline promising careers. They could then team up with university career counselors to help students at both the undergrad and graduate levels visualize possible directions they might go. This wouldn’t guarantee upward mobility or a set professional track, but it would give students more of an idea of what their careers might look like, helping them plan accordingly. It would be especially useful for Ph.D. students who would otherwise be fixated on academia.

In addition, new institutions could be created to give smart young people the option to trade mobility for security. Top companies could establish lifetime employment systems, like those traditionally used in Japan, for those workers who don’t mind sacrificing pay and mobility for security. For those who do prefer to hop between jobs, the government and job search services could team up to create something like Denmark’s flexicurity system, which helps workers smoothly move from job to job.

Finally, the government could cancel some portion of millennials’ student loan debt, which at this point is mostly owned by the government. Lifting that burden would cause the national debt to rise, but the increase in both economic dynamism and workers’ well-being will be worth it. In the future, government should focus on supporting education via grants for low-income students rather than on encouraging students to go into debt.

So there are things that can be done to help the burned-out millennials. The alternative — a disaffected army of smart, educated, angry young people — doesn’t bode well for the country.

Noah Smith is a columnist for Bloomberg View.