Optimism, pessimism, and the college graduate

On Wednesday night I participated in a roundtable with some soon-to-graduate college students. It was the final chapter of the News Cut on Campus project in which we focused on how the economy is affecting the outlook of students.

The roundtable will be broadcast on MPR’s Midday one of these days, but I don’t believe it’s been scheduled yet. Find the broadcast here.

I was asked to provide some observations about what I learned during the project. Here’s a few I tossed in along with a few I didn’t.

  • People must really be in a bad frame of mind if I’m the most optimistic person in the room.
  • At one point, host Jeff Horwich noted that the people who grew up around the Depression share a lot with these kids because they really had to struggle as they set out in life. True, but as a colleague mentioned to me, “these kids sound like every soon-to-graduate student in history.” It’s not a new phenomenon that people can’t take a direct route to their dreams.

    It’s supposed to be hard to make the transition from college to the working world. The dream has never been accomplished by taking one giant step, but by taking a series of small steps, some of which can be missteps. That’s just the way it works. It’s the late ’90s that were the exception. Don’t make me tell you about my first $110-a-week-six-days-a-week job I got out of college.

  • Raise your hand if life has gone exactly the way you thought it would. That’s part of what students are experiencing — in many cases for the first time. It’s also what old-timers like me are experiencing as we get into the retirement “red zone.” It’s not going exactly as we thought it would. But why should this phase of life be any different than the other ones? It doesn’t go the way you think it will and sometimes — most often, actually — that’s a good thing.
  • Jeff asked about advice from parents and several of the students made reference to parents discouraging kids from certain career choices. I met a very nice woman in Ely who gave up her dream of being an artist because her family said she couldn’t make any money as an artist. Her comments have stuck with me for the last two months as did the comments of the students on Thursday evening.

    Part of the reason for that is I’m giving the same sort of advice to my youngest son, who isn’t far away from graduating. I’m not going to advise anyone not to listen to Mom and Dad, but here’s the thing: As we get older, we grow more conservative and more risk averse. But you’re far too young to be 50.

    Your mother was a hippie and wants you to be more concerned about settling down than she was? Fine. Ask her if she’d be a hippie again if she had it to do all over. It’s all part of the journey and we parents forget that you should make your own, regardless of what might happen.

  • You won’t be the first generation to have to move back home for a little while. Trust me. I don’t like it any better than you do, and neither do your parents. It’s part of their journey, too.
  • The media isn’t responsible for the economy the way it is, but we are partly responsible for keeping it the way it is. It’s not our job not to tell you how bad things are, but it’s not our job to tell you how bad things will be because….
  • We could be wrong. Anyone who’s watched Jon Stewart’s dismantling of CNBC over their consistently lousy predictions of a rosy economy, should understand that we all could be equally wrong with predictions that you’ll have to learn to live as if it’s 1933.
  • I have no clue how you’re going to repay your student loans. Good luck with that.