For Millenials, it's time to take charge

Students look at company literature at an Economic and Humanitarian Organizations International Job Conference at Columbia University in New York City.

I'm a millenial. We're the most educated generation to hit the workforce in generations, with 39 percent of us holding college degrees. We're driven and technologically savvy.

But we’re also stereotyped: We're seen as overeducated, narcissistic and entitled. Conventional wisdom has employers worried that we’re flaky, willing to leave a job that isn’t “cool” enough or doesn’t offer us enough personal time.

“This generation is higher in positive self views and has higher expectations,” says Jean Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University. She has conducted empirical research on Millennial narcissism/work values and says work centrality has declined and we’re less willing to work overtime.

But others say those are misconceptions.

“Millennials have too much education with too little knowledge,” says Jennifer J. Deal, senior research scientist at the Center for Creative Leadership. It's not a lack of drive, she says. It's that we lack the experience needed to compete with more seasoned workers. So we can’t secure the jobs we really want -- well-paid, life-fulfilling jobs.

And it doesn’t help that we’ve come of age during the toughest job market in decades. The enormous student debts that many of us have accumulated in an effort to be competitive are making life even tougher. Things look so bad for Millenials that that one article in The Daily Beast called us the “Screwed Generation." 

But are we screwed just for now, or forever?

Experts debate whether there really is a generational shift in motivation and work ethic; the arguments seem neverending, and much of the evidence imperfect.

But everyone seems to agree that Millenials can prevail if we’re more realistic and open-minded about the job market. Here are some of their tips:

  • Infiltrate from within -- Let’s face it, those online resume applications aren't being read, for the most part, and you probably won’t get your dream job straight out of school. But if you find your dream company, swallow your pride and be willing to start at the low end of the totem pole. “Find something that enables you to grow within an organization,” says Alec Levenson, senior research scientist for the Center for Effective Organizations.  Even if you start as an intern or part-time help, you can pick up new skills and learn about opportunities in that company. “It’s much easier to be taken seriously for other jobs within a company once you’re already in,” Levenson says.
  • Go abroad for a while --If the economy is this bad in the U.S., you might be able to redeem yourself by gaining life experience and work experience overseas, experts say. Plus, as we become a more global society, having an international work background, "Could put you higher on the curve for jobs in the future," Levenson says. 
  • Transfer where you want to go rather than starting there -- Student loans pile up at expensive universities. The degree is worth some money, but probably not a decade of wage slavery to pay off your student loans. If you’re not yet in college, Levenson suggests looking into community colleges or state schools and then transferring to a more expensive or prestigious school to cut back on student loans. That may be unsettling for some students, he says. “But the economic return is about the same,” and you can still graduate from a top-tier university.  
  • Pay close attention to your loan payments -- For graduates already in student debt, be sure to explore your repayment plans and choose the best for your employment situation, suggests Scott Gamm. He’s the founder of the financial website, HelpSaveMyDollars.com and a millennial himself. Devoting as much money as possible to getting your loads paid off early, he says, is one of the most basic steps in conquering debt. It's excusable to eat ramen every day in your 20s. In your 30s, it's not cute anymore.
  • Credit cards are your enemy --  Your credit limit is not your allowance. If you must use credit cards, only charge as much as you can easily pay off. You're probably already under a mountain of debt for your student loans; it's not wise to rack up more. There are exceptions for taking out loans -- like financing a car, etc. But really be aware of your limits.

“It’s easy to get caught up in the doom and gloom of our time," Gamm says. But a look back at history might give us some perspective. Other generations went through tough economic times -- even out of school -- and managed to make a good living and succeed. No economic situation is permanent. 

Yes, this is a tough time to be entering the job market. And no one really knows when things will pick up again. But, Gamm says, if we each take charge of our own situation, “Our generation will weather the storm and emerge.”

About the author

Jacqueline Guzman joined Marketplace in June 2012. She is a recent graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and covers consumer finance, health and arts & culture.

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