I graduated college in the first heyday of internet-connected businesses in the late 1990s. Jobs of all types were abundant. And although the “dot-com” bubble burst soon afterwards, unemployment rates remained historically low. This year’s graduates are facing more obstacles than those from fifteen years ago.
Starting on a solid path right out of college is one of the keys to long-term financial success. Good choices today will result in an achievable level of financial independence down the road, even for those graduates who might not be blessed with a solid financial support system at home.
This is going to be a tough world in which to thrive financially for new graduates.
The world today is more competitive. The same skills that were considered noteworthy when I graduated college are commonplace today. In 1998, knowing how to design and code websites was a useful, marketable, and lucrative skill; in 2013, everyone and her grandmother either knows HTML or has access to do-it-yourself websites. And the internet has helped globalize the job market, so even the best website developers need to compete with people from around the world who have the same skills — but whose financial needs from a career are much less.
Outsourcing is still considered an issue worth debating — whether to keep more jobs “here” in the United States, which helps the economy because it gives citizens more money to become consumers of our own products, or to outsource more jobs globally, which helps the economy by reducing the cost of labor for businesses, with the increased profits being reinvested in growth of those businesses.
Globalization is a trend that cannot be reversed. Technology will continue to make it easier for companies to find skilled employees at better rates, in addition to replacing more employees with automated systems.
The one question that should be on one’s mind is, How can I set myself apart from everyone else?
Following these suggestions will help you stand out in a society where everyone is as smart, as talented, and as driven as you. You’ll be noticed by employers, you will be seen as having values that are worth your asking salaries, and you’ll set yourself up for above-average success inside or outside of a career.
Be responsible with your money.
It’s impossible to predict all the challenges over the next fifty years, but more than ever, the world is in a state of flux. Threats to the global economy and to nature are real. Financial independence provides more flexibility to react to changes in the world. I’ve often written about this concept on Consumerism Commentary, but here are a few quick examples:
- Have an emergency fund to help you handle the loss of a job. It gives you the freedom to be selective when looking for a job rather than settling for the first burger-flipping opening you find as you manage your career for the long-term.
- Take charge of your retirement investments to gain financial independence and eventually retire, if that is something you’d like to do. Having the option to stop working is better than needing to rely on trading your time and effort for your salary later in life when you may not want to work. Guaranteed pensions from private companies are all but gone and governments continually reduce their benefits, so you have no choice but to manage your own plans for future income, so do it well.
- Pay off your debt, especially your student loan debt. When you have debt, you can never work for yourself or your family. let’s say you earn $60,000 a year out of school and have a job working eight hours each day. The first two hours of the morning, you’re not working for yourself, you’re working to pay your taxes. If you have to pay $625 a month for your student loan bill, that’s another hour where the benefits of the work you do go to something other than your necessary expenses. Get rid of debt quickly so that every cent you earn after taxes is yours, free and clear.
Start by understanding your expenses and income, documenting where your money goes, and planning how you use money rather than allowing your spending to dictate your financial behavior.
Being good at something isn’t enough.
With the increased competition, some company you want to work for will always be able to find someone who has at least your skills, your experience, and a willingness to work harder and for less money. It’s good to enter the working world with better expectations and a willingness to compromise, and in today’s employment environment, employers aren’t too far off when say they things like, “You should just be happy to have a job,” as they attempt to get you to accept unfavorable conditions.
Everyone is ultimately replaceable. So whether you’re looking for a job, intent on working as an employee, or running your own business looking for clients, you have to accept that you need to be noticed.
Be passionate. Find a job that suits your passion isn’t going to be easy. You’re probably familiar with this mental exercise: Consider what you would do with your life if you never need to earn money, and that should be what you choose for a career. That might work for some people. In fact, it might be easier today than every for it to work. The internet brings people with similar passions closer together, and just about every passion has some sort of component that with some creative thinking could be made into a profitable endeavor.
But for most of today’s graduates, passion will take a backseat to the practical. Many will be accountants who are not in love with their jobs or the work they do. But finding passion hidden in the mundane, whether by applying accounting skills to some other field or just by enjoying the work they do on a day-to-day basis, having and exuding a passion makes you stand out.
Be a leader. This can be difficult for the timid among us who are careful not to step on anyone’s toes. I struggled with this. Early in my career, I understood that I had to start from the bottom, working my way up. I wanted to move up, but I was reluctant to take on the management-level responsibilities without compensation or consideration for my efforts. I had seen people put in effort well beyond expectations and not be acknowledged for doing so. Despite having various leadership roles in other areas of my life , I was reluctant to be a leader at an office unless ordained as such.
I later changed my approach. Leadership is not about having a title or having someone’s permission. It’s about doing what is necessary, even if it means putting your needs aside for the good of the company’s mission. Leadership is setting a good example for those around you, regardless of their hierarchical relationship to you. It’s not about being the boss, it’s not about telling people what to do, and it’s not about delegating responsibilities to others. Grasping this concept of leadership as soon as possible will set you apart.
Clean up your act. If your email address, Twitter handle, or blog name is cutesy, get rid of it. Professionalism counts. More than any other time in history, your activities are public. People live their lives in the public eye, and everything is permanent. The vast databases on the internet don’t delete anything, and memories are forever.
Making the right choices about what you do is simple. Consider if you’d be happy reading a front page article in the New York Times. If the article wouldn’t be flattering, that might help you make the right decision. Try picturing the headline starting, “Man dies while…” or “Woman dies while…,” and think about whether this would make those you leave behind proud.
Along with cleaning up your act, clean up the evidence. It’s fine to share photographs of yourself partying the night away at a variety of bars if you share them only with your friends. For the public, you should keep clean social media profiles, and make sure nothing embarrassing shows up when you search for your name on Google. You could be the best architect in the world, but if your “brand” isn’t maintained properly, no one will want to work with you.
Learn skills for the twenty-first century.
Three specific skills stand out for those who want to make sure they’re poised to take advantage of every possible opportunity in the future.
Learn to write well. Language is always in a state of flux, and people speak and write differently depending on the audience. What might be appropriate for a text message, like “c u @ 8, kthxbye,” might not be appropriate for the confirmation to your new boss that you’ll be on time for your first day on the job.
With email — and even blogging — people are writing more than ever, but with a tendency to take shortcuts and to ignore accepted rules of grammar. Even when I was working for a large company, I was embarrassed when co-workers set emails to clients or peers that, due to their lack of coherency or readability, reflected poorly on my organization. Communication skills can never be overrated.
Learn to speak other languages. It’s not clear that English will always be the primary language of business around the world. Multilinguals have more opportunities open to them throughout the world and have the potential to earn more money overall because of these additional opportunities.
In the United, the number of residents speaking Spanish at home doubled in the two decades between 1990 and 2010. As we’ve seen throughout history, languages rise and fall, and those who adapt to the colloquial are better poised for long-term success. Globalization, however, is something new in historical terms, and might further affect language on a global scale. As the success of business in Japan in the 1980s grew, people were convinced Japanese would be the language to learn. With China as a world economic power, the ability to speak languages of that country is now considered a personal asset.
Learn to code.
Today, your phone and your television are computers. More and more, functions inside your house, like the heating and air conditioner, your lights, your locks, and your appliances have embedded computers or are controlled by computers.
In a world where not only all business is done or managed by or with computers, but most of the objects we interact with on a daily basis are, include, or are controlled by computers, those who can program those computers will always have marketable skills.
Learning how to program a computer helps you learn how to think. It’s problem-solving, it’s logical thinking, and it flexes the muscles of creativity. Although I learned computer programming at an early age, I chose a different path and didn’t maintain my skills with the latest advances. Had I continued learning to code, I would have been able to create my own smartphone applications to realize several of the ideas I’ve had, and would probably been able to create a marketable product and a business around it.
The leaders of the technology industry are all coders, and I expect the leaders of all industries will increasingly, over the next fifty years, also be coders.
Whether leaving college and entering the working world or unemployment for the first time or graduating high school with a solid job offer, today’s graduates are faced with a number of challenges that might be somewhat unfamiliar to past generations. It’s going to take more than skill, more than hard work, and more than being good to thrive in a world that grows increasingly competitive. Other than the above, what suggestions do you have for people looking to spend the next fifty years of their lives moving towards success?
Published or updated May 21, 2013.