Limits lower for today's grads

The Baltimore Sun

Staying young, growing old and what happens in between

Jessie has a job.

Regular readers of this column might expect to feel my grateful exhale ruffle their newspapers now that my youngest child has graduated from college and is employed.

But I am still holding my breath.

One of my friends asked if I felt like this, then, was the finish line. That a college degree and a job in the chosen field is the end zone. Not for the kids, perhaps. But for the parents.

Finally, we can dust off our palms and rock back on our heels with a smirk of pride on our faces. The kid is launched.

But any sense of accomplishment I feel for getting my children this far is overshadowed by the feeling of dread I have for the uncertainty they face.

I am saying, "Congratulations. Now buy some grown-up clothes." But what I am thinking is, "Hang them in the closet in your old bedroom because this job - any job - may not last long enough for you to save the security deposit on a cheap apartment. Downsizing is now a step on any career path."

The sky was the limit when my generation left college. True, we were earning peanuts, and the furniture in our first apartments was made from cement blocks and wood planks stacked just so.

But we believed we would soon move out, and up. That it would be our decision to leave whatever employer gave us our first shot. We might have started small, but we dreamed big. And for many of us, those dreams came true.

I don't know if I would nurture those kinds of dreams in my children these days. This shrinking economy might squash them flat.

Don't get cocky, I would say instead. Do your best to hang onto whatever job you have, but assume you will be downsized, and be ready.

What kind of a launch party is that for a new graduate?

My children believe I will use any excuse to extend my run as their parent, and they are right. But they don't know how lucky they are. The one benefit of having a mother who had a career is that I might actually be able to help them get a foothold in theirs.

I brought my annual reviews home for my kids to read. Here's what a boss liked about me, I tell them. Here is what they didn't. You can learn from my boss' expectations. You can learn from my mistakes.

I've clipped and saved all of the "advice to new grads" and "advice to first-time employees" that are regular features in newspapers this time of year. I've clipped others about how to budget your first paychecks carefully.

I have e-mailed articles about whether it is appropriate to wear flip-flops to work. I have sent my daughter into stores where they sell a style of clothing that is new to her - business attire. I have picked up the tab for a more sophisticated haircut.

The advice used to be, "Dress like the job you want." Now it is, "Dress so you can move quickly. Nimble is the new valuable."

I tell my daughter to make herself indispensable. To make herself the kind of first-time employee it doesn't make sense to downsize out the door - someone who does so much work for so little money it doesn't make sense to get rid of her.

Not much of a pep talk, if you ask me.

There is a scene near the end of that classic up-by-her-bootstraps movie, Working Girl, in which Harrison Ford packs a lunchbox for Melanie Griffith and tells her to play nice with others, as she is getting ready to leave for the first day of her dream job.

The movie was made in 1988. That was 20 years ago. Things are different now.


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