My friends and I just went through another launch season – getting our kids out of college and onto the rest of their lives. Two of my four kids have now graduated from college, and I have 20 years of guiding my friends’ and clients’ kids through this process. And now, I’ve started running a company designed to help with this transition – so I have a lot invested in it.

And I’ve dedicated a lot of time to understanding and helping calm down parents and kids about the question: Do first jobs matter that much? And how much should parents worry after college if their child doesn’t find a very good job (or any job)?

I have a friend, Brian, who thinks the first job does matter. He’s struck by how weird it is that so many families spend an enormous amount of time and money and anxiety on getting the kid into the “right” college (the oh-so-competitive, name-brand college), but then the kid is left totally on their own to figure out what major, internship, job, and company they apply to. What gives? Don’t kids deserve as much help figuring out what to do with that education as where to get that education?
Then there’s the other side. A line of thought that says the first job just isn’t that big a deal. It’s a starter job. After college, a bunch of people who had a hard time with the theoretical nature of learning for learning’s sake kind of kick into high gear and the revenge of the “C” students starts in earnest.
There’s an old story that is told in academia — it’s probably apocryphal but amusing anyway — that the president of Yale tells the new faculty, “There are two groups of students to pay particular attention to — the A students because some of them will go and get their PhD’s and be your colleagues, and it can be awkward if you have been terrible to them. And the C students because they will endow the University.”
At Happy Spectacular, we have a point of view that there is only one really bad first job decision and that is to take a job you don’t like or care about that pays a lot of money and then to build your life around that money.
That is the real career problem that handcuffs people to the wrong job and eventually the unhappy career and leads to a lot of sadness later. For those who get out of the blocks fast and start earning a lot of money, we recommend that they build their life infrastructure slowly. This helps people to find what they want to do that pays enough, rather than finding what they want to make and hope they are happy doing it.
Your kid may have their own belief about how important the first job out of college is. And it can be really hard to watch your child struggle to determine what is next for them, especially when they inevitably have that friend who is going to medical school or gets the job they always wanted. It can feel like they are woefully lost when they are under-employed, or just haven’t found their right gear yet.
It’s important to remember in these times that most do find it. Recent surveys found that it generally takes six months to find a job after college and that 65% of parents expect to provide some form of financial assistance for up to five years after college. The most common cause of difficulty finding a job is a lack of awareness or guidance, not lack of skill or motivation on the part of the graduate.
I personally have a rule (that is impossible to enforce) that my kids get a skilled labor job after college, and they no longer take jobs that require no knowledge or skills or training. While I recognize that it’s a rule I have no control over, I do like to set an expectation that after college for my kids to find work that is meaningful in some way to them.
So really, it’s important for us (parents) to remember that there are a lot of paths to take after college that can lead to the happy and productive, and yes, even spectacular life. Yes, it is important for us to encourage our kids to find something that allows them to pay their bills and become productive members of society. But we also want to encourage them to find work that motivates them and allows them to see their contributions as valuable. And let’s recognize that not all of our kids get a full order of all three of these things their first try, but keep in mind that these are the things that they need to be trying for.
So while most of our kids figure it out eventually, that doesn’t mean you don’t have to worry at all. (Sorry about the double negative. I did graduate college but it was a long time ago.) And though I’ve tried to write this in a nice relaxing tone, there are things to watch for that might suggest that your graduate isn’t taking the next step in their development as easily as you would have hoped they would. What to watch for that could be a source of worry are:

  • Your kid is too anxious about what she has to do in order to get a job. It can be especially hard if they don’t feel that they need to network or they are terrified of interviewing. This can obviously make it very hard to find a job and can also lead to underemployment because she takes the first job she is offered so she doesn’t have to search or interview anymore.
  • Your kid isn’t motivated at all. The thing I often hear parents complain about is hearing their graduate say, “I need a break after getting through college.” Yes, this can be painful to hear, but it’s not unheard of nor particularly unhealthy for kids to bartend or scrape together the money to take a trip, but these kids are doing something with their time. Bars are fun, travel makes them interesting. Watching reality TV in your basement is neither fun nor does it make them interesting and is a sign that they are not ready to take the next step without some assistance.
  • It’s not a problem to not know what you want to do, but not having an open mind is, especially when this creates a barrier to going on informational interviews or trying out different options. Young people who will not go and learn about their options (through internet research or from good old-fashioned in-person informational interviews) may be having a more difficult post-college transition than they are willing to admit.
  • We all respond to the anxiety of not knowing what is next in our lives in different ways. Some of our kids try to make sure that they control everything that they can control before they put their resume out there, or introduce themselves to people who can help them. If your child feels like she needs the perfect resume and the perfect LinkedIn profile that’s fine. If it takes her six months to create a publishable version, that isn’t fine, that’s obsessive and getting in the way of their job search. If you have one of these kids, you probably knew it before they went to college. Sometimes they benefit from hearing the same message you’ve repeated from a new person they trust in a new way.
  • Finally, if your graduate thinks that he may be chosen next season for “Saturday Night Live,” with no experience onstage, he may need some help looking in the mirror and seeing the potential that employers see. There is usually no reason to crush this probably unrealistic dream, so it is ok to encourage this as a part-time pursuit, but he may need some help to balance his time between his money-making job that will help him pay for those improv classes that he wants to take on the Northside.

If your kid is experiencing one of these challenges in a way that paralyzes them and makes it hard for them to move forward, finding a way to support them is important, but it’s also stressful for you. It’ll be helpful to recognize that they want to get on with their life too, and they just don’t know how. This might be the time to help your child find a career coach, someone with the practical expertise to help them make a plan and then go and make that plan a reality.
And those who have gotten seriously stuck aren’t the only kids who can use some support, they are just the ones who probably need it the most. There are lots of kids who get some coaching and guidance who fall into none of those categories.
We know what a relief it can be for a parent to hear from their graduate that they have a plan and that they know the next steps on their job search journey.

John Philbin

John is a co-founder of Happy Work Spectacular Life who, if he wasn't helping people with their careers, would consider himself a ghost researcher. His claim to fame is that he is a champion race walker (he actually came in second place).