Ah, graduation season. Pomp and circumstance. Gowns and mortarboards. Bright-eyed millennials accepting hard-earned diplomas under the adoring gazes of friends and family who have endured long distances and even longer-winded commencement speakers to be part of this liminal moment. After four (or more) years of hard work and tuition payments, it feels good for everyone to pose for a few pictures, post them on Facebook, and go out to a nice dinner.
But then what?
Unlike their parents (many of whom had entry-level jobs or graduate school lined up well before their big day), a troublingly high number of the young men and women completing their undergraduate degrees today don't have an immediately clear life path ahead of them. While the job market for recent college grads is improving, starter positions that pay well and provide potential for meaningful work and growth are still hard to come by. Graduate school is an expensive proposition, especially for twenty-somethings already burdened by debt from their undergraduate education. Rents in urban centers remain prohibitively high, and, to top it off, millennials — who have been trained to question any process rather than just accept things "as they are" — often have a hard time accepting the traditional model of post-college life that involves putting in grinding hours and eating a lot of ramen.
As a result, young people today "make less money relative to the rest of the population than ever before, are more conscious of the value of the products they buy, and are more likely to be living with their parents."
What are we as parents of these complex, confident, and often contradictory kids supposed to do? Especially if we don't want them still living in our basements and on our dime when they're 30?
Talk to them.
Here are five topics you ought to consider discussing in depth with your recent college graduate.
Debt and financial literacy
In an ideal world, young people would have learned about important things like compound interest and debt early — say, in high school, before the lure of credit cards and college loans engaged them in what can be a debilitating cycle. Unfortunately, with teenagers so busy trying to get accepted to college these days, many don't have the time or brain power to focus on these critical issues.
Now is the time to talk — seriously - about money with your recent grad. Give him or her the facts about all of the above, plus the importance of planning for retirement, insurance, and whether or not he or she can afford to go straight into graduate school. Your twenty-something may not find these topics particularly scintillating, but you should press the point — especially if you are among the more than 50 percent of parents today who are helping your young adult offspring out financially. They won't have you forever.
The generation that grew up receiving trophies just for showing up often feels entitled, even if they haven't yet earned it. Your millennial wants it all and wants it now: Work that is meaningful and enjoyable, while still allowing for plenty of leisure time, enough money to eat at the most hip eateries and coffee houses for almost half of his or her meals, to be "heard" by bosses and other influencers, and to have a comfortable place to live. A really nice car would be great, too.
Now is the time to talk to your twenty-something about reality. Millennials are ambitious and idealistic; these are great qualities. If you can help your daughter or son understand the equal importance of aspiration, patience, and grit, you will be doing her or him an enormous favor. The fact is your child will not be able to have it all. But she can work toward the things that she identifies as most important to her, and she will ultimately appreciate your emotional and moral support along the way much more than a handout of cash or favors.
Take, for example, the issue of returning to the family home after graduation. This is not necessarily a bad thing. With housing costs high, starting salaries low, and an unprecedented amount of college debt floating around, living with the 'rents can afford a young person the opportunity to gain a firmer financial footing before leaving the nest for good.
But don't just make up your son's old twin bed and provide his meals, laundry, and cleaning services the way you did when he was in kindergarten. Sit down and talk about the reasons he is returning home. Be clear this arrangement is a means to an end — eventual independence — and state your expectation that he contribute materially and/or financially to the household while he remains under your roof as an adult member of the family.
Today's young adults have strong ideas about careers. They want do to work that is meaningful; their innate idealism makes them want to have a positive impact on the world. At the same time, millennials want their jobs to be fun. They've heard about employers (mostly in the tech world) who provide enough on-the-job recreation to further blur the increasingly ambiguous line between work and play. They crave praise and acknowledgement from their colleagues, because they've been raised on a regular diet of affirmation. Most want to live someplace they perceive as central to world events, because they see themselves as having the potential to influence those events. Oh … and they want time off. Lots of it. Because millennials see socializing (both in real-life and online), travel, and recreation as essential to self-actualization, and that makes them better team-members … right?
"Not so fast," we parents must counsel. All of the above are, like millennials themselves, wonderful and visionary. And perhaps good long-term career objectives. But just as young adults must learn to make sacrifices and compromises when it comes to their finances, they must also face the realities of being at the bottom of the ladder. Once again, ask your son or daughter to look at the big picture of employment and prioritize.
Sure, the unpaid internship at Conde Nast sounds cool, but if fashion is his thing, wouldn't he be building a better platform taking a job in retail that actually pays? Does she really have to live in San Francisco? Is it worth working under a boss who doesn't give him a lot of positive feedback in order to research first-hand just how that person became a leader in their shared field?
You might also consider talking to your recent graduate about presentation and attention to detail, especially if you've done a lot of hand-holding during the high school and college years. A shocking number of young adults cannot discern between the casual, forgiving world of their social communications ("Where r u? LOL. Whatevs.") and the more formal protocols of the world of work … in some cases because mom and dad wrote (or at least heavily edited ) all their college essays and papers. If this might be you, it's time to rectify that mistake, because potential employers usually don't welcome parents at interviews or on the job.
You don't need to burst your young adult child's bubble by asking her to be pragmatic about the start of her career. Just present an optimistic, realistic point of view.
If you are old enough to have a child in his or her twenties, chances are you've thought (more than once) how fortunate you were to have sowed your wild oats in the pre-digital age. Back in the '80s and early '90s, we could say and do silly, thoughtless things without too much fear of long-term repercussions. At worst someone might snap a Polaroid of that game of strip poker that seemed so innocent and jolly at the time. Once you chased down the hard evidence of your inebriated nudity, it was easy enough to pretend it never happened.
Times have changed. Between smartphones and social media, nothing is private anymore. Nothing. Young adults know this in theory — it is to be hoped you've had conversations with your children about their online presence and personal safety from the beginning of their access to the internet. Now is the time to reinforce that conversation with solid information about the correlation between their reputation and access to everything from employment and loans to housing and relationships.
Again, you don't have to prohibit your adult child from having fun. Just help him be aware of what can happen if his "innocent" fun ends up all over YouTube.
Millennials have been unfairly characterized as shallow and narcissistic. Truth is, our daughters and sons are no more self-absorbed than we — or our parents, or our grandparents — were when we were in our twenties. And today's young people — faced with an unprecedented view of the world and its frailties — feel the burden of responsibility for addressing those frailties to an unprecedented degree.
Our kids worry. A lot.
And so we worry about them. The final conversation you might have with your recent college graduate circles back to the fact that this is your child. Even if he is making more money than you do at his first job or she is on her way to med school on a full scholarship, our children need our perspective and experience to remind them to take care of themselves.
Eat right. Exercise. Get enough sleep. Unplug now and then. Feel wonder. Feed your soul. Come home or call whenever you need to.
You love them. It's time to let them go. But don't be afraid to hand them the anchor line of your wisdom and experience; they will need it in the years and decades to come.