As this year’s college seniors graduate, relentless pessimism about their fate abounds. I’m a glass half-full kind of guy, but it’s starting to get to me.
On May 15, the Wall Street Journal offered “A Lament for the Class of 2010.” After reciting the dreadful statistics — 17% of those age 20 to 24 don’t have a job and 2 million college graduates are unemployed — the author discussed the intense competition that new graduates face in seeking jobs as “waitresses, pizza delivery men, file clerks, bouncers, trainee busboys, assistant baristas, and interns at bodegas.”
A May 16 New York Times article provided a more dismal assessment. “Plan B: Skip College” gave graduates the bad news that they might have wasted their time and money on the degrees they’re now receiving. Great. Now you tell them.
Another Times article on May 29 described the unhappy plight of a 2005 NYU graduate who is $100,000 in debt and has few prospects.
And of course, everyone knows about the abuse heaped on the next generation of workers searching for a toe-hold on opportunity through the 21st century version of slave labor: unpaid internships.
It’s true that many of the nation’s best and brightest are now receiving student loan repayment schedules along with their degrees. Even those who lack educational debt will feel the burden of an economy that deprives them of the psychological satisfaction that comes with a decent job.
Where’s the good news?
Today’s new graduates are rethinking traditionally safe career tracks that aren’t so safe anymore. The legal profession is an example.
In the 1960s, law school was a sanctuary. Deferments from compulsory military service meant three more years of academia instead of rice paddies and bullets in Vietnam. That was a pretty good deal.
When the draft ended, law school offered another kind of sanctuary — it was the last bastion of the liberal arts major who didn’t know what to do next. But it was an acceptable default solution. For a reasonable price, it offered the status of a profession and the realistic prospect of a fulfilling career.
Not anymore. Those looking to weather the current economic storm find that law school is an expensive place to seek shelter. Even worse, its earlier promises of future rewards — not only financial security, but also a satisfying career — have become suspect. In fact, many face a Hobson’s choice: surveys consistently show that today’s unhappiest lawyers work in big firms that pay the most.
That’s actually good news for the next generation of would-be attorneys. The sudden unreliability of the law as a safe path provides an opportunity to regroup. For those who are adequately informed about the experience and remain certain that it’s for them, the law is a sensible choice.
But for the rest, using law school as an excuse for three years of procrastination could be a costly mistake. With crushing debt loads, even many of those who get high-paying legal jobs will find a harsh reality that conflicts with their expectations and aspirations. From there, it’s a short trip to the ranks of unhappy, dissatisfied lawyers. We already have too many of those because the light didn’t dawn on them until they’d passed self-imposed points of no return.
So, recent graduates, as difficult as it may be, consider yourselves lucky. You’ll eventually find yourselves among the most creative, entrpreneurial generation in history because circumstances forced you to think outside the usual boxes as you pursued your passions.
I look forward to seeing the fruits of your efforts.