COVID-19 has been a major global life event for all seven billion people on the planet. For the first time in 102 years, the whole world has been forced to reckon with a collective problem for which there is no immediate or universally applicable solution. Understandably, COVID-19 has forced all of us to examine our lives, and the manner in which we live it, in new and honest ways. One of the biggest concerns that people have been expressing to me in my virtual therapy room is increased worry about their career paths and how they can become more intentional about the direction in which it moves. Inspired by them and the conversations we have been having, I have chosen to share some thoughts for recent graduates and mid-career people.
Graduation from higher education is a major life event. It is rightfully celebrated by family and friends and is as close to a “rite of passage” as western societies are going to get. Graduates often experience a mixture of pride, excitement and anxiety about the next phase of their lives. In recent times, we have seen younger generations struggle with a number of issues that were not experienced by previous generations when they graduated. The climate crisis, an intensifying global geo-political environment, the fallout of a global economic crisis, a pandemic and high student loan debt are issues that are all too real to the graduates of the post-2010 period.
The 2008 global economic crash, (referred to as “The Great Recession), saw the parents of Millennials, (people born between 1981 and 1996), experience severe economic hardship from which many still have not recovered. The millennial children watched helplessly as the systems that had been put in place for generations, crashed and burned. However, their response was to live differently and insist on things changing to become more equitable. Luxury brands and the luxury lifestyle has been largely rejected by this group who see it as wasteful, elitist and exploitative. Their general approach to consumption has prompted marketing executives to urge companies to alter their approach to this group because the “tried and true” methods of marketing have not worked on them.
The youngest Millennials are now 24 years old and are likely graduating from university. From where they sit, life is a lot more challenging than any previous generation since the Great Depression has had to face. They have watched the script of “graduate college, get a job with a pension plan and stay there till you retire” become obsolete with no actual idea of how to replace it. However, this is the generation of innovators in the field of technology. The old adage “necessity is the mother of invention” would adequately capture the approach of millennials who have inherited a world in crisis. Their innovations have given us social media, Airbnb, Lyft and Uber, Groupon and a host of other ideas that have increased convenience and simultaneously changed the number of choices that people have. Hotels have tried to fight Airbnb in several countries because this generation decided that they did not want to pay what they charge for their services. We also have social media influencers who make their living off of their reviews of products, services etc. Millennials are also inventing solutions to our energy, waste and medical issues, (as seen here)
Millennials understand other millennials in a way that previous generations simply cannot. They are also the largest generation cohort after the Baby Boomers so, they naturally have greater societal influence. They are also more engaged in social justice issues and tend to believe in their capacity to change the world. This is evident in the marches for climate change, Black Lives Matter, women’s and LGBTQIA+ rights etc. One of the recurring themes with my millennial clients is how much they care about causes that promote greater equality within society and their willingness to “cancel” those who seek to exploit others.
Millennials who are facing graduation now may be feeling discouraged and stressed because they cannot find employment. Perhaps the discussion now needs to evolve into recognising that the status of an “employee” only really benefits the employer. It is the employer who decides how much employees are paid, what benefits they get, the amount of the benefits and the pace at which their incomes and positions with the organisation rise.
Perhaps it is now time to encourage our young people to capitalise on their desire to change the world and write business plans rather than resumes.
This means fostering in them the curiosity and courage to create their niches and grow their businesses rather than to seek employment from others. Millennials are good at turning their “hobbies” and passions into careers. It could be as simple as a line of handbags made from recycled denim and other discarded material, natural body care products made from simple ingredients, (like Jessica Alba’s Honest brand), starting a non-profit to help solve a social problem, or anything else that others would be willing to pay for.
This generation is very concerned about health and wellness so, it stands to reason that certifying as a yoga instructor, fitness coach, nutritionist, chef etc. would be growing in demand. In North America, meal preparation services are one way of solving a problem for busy professionals that is lucrative for the service providers. Caribbean entrepreneurs may be able to alter the service to suit our needs and go into this kind of work.
One of the interesting developments of the past 20 years is the movement away from traditional university education and more towards skills-based employment. This is a global phenomenon. Many articles have been published recently with the message that college is “dead”. It is a perspective with which I am starting to agree. Unless one has a professional degree, (doctor, therapist, nurse etc.), it is difficult to be employed at the appropriate level after leaving school. COVID 19 has shown us that universities are businesses whose “product” is educational certification. The cost of tuition has increased astronomically making it difficult for most people to access it.
Creative industries like media and communication on the other hand, are always hungry for content. In the Caribbean, we do not often see ourselves represented in media as cable TV tends to show imported rather than local cultures. Short courses in videography, photography and other related professions allow for high levels of autonomy and income generation.
Make-up artists work not just in the film industry but, they are present on music video sets, dressing rooms of media houses, and with people on special days like graduation, weddings etc. The same is true for hair stylists, micro bladers, nail technicians, fashion consultants and a whole host of other related professions that do not take years for certification.
For those who are graduating from traditional institutions, it does not mean that it is impossible to earn a living with your skills. It may mean simply recognising that you may need to draw upon some aspect of your life to help you launch your personal brand. If you have a degree in literature but you love travel, you may become a travel blogger or vlogger. Many organisations will offer discounts and complimentary access to their facilities for the publicity provided by a blog. It is also possible to approach organisations to become a brand ambassador once a following is developed. Then there are people like Anyl Lu whose university qualification was in chemical engineering. She saw a niche in the fashion industry and went on to become a shoe designer, filling the niche of comfortable but fashionable footwear for women.
Older millennials, (those approaching their 40th birthday), should be encouraged to see that there is the possibility of a mid-career change for them too. This is a lot more common than one would think. Although I am one of the younger Gen Xers, I embarked on a mid-career change five years ago at 37. I could not be happier now that I am transitioning into working for myself full time. Ideally, this will mean that no one will ever be able to tell me how much I should earn and when I can and cannot take time off for self-care.
In mid-life, we tend to have a lot of work experience which can be transferred to other contexts. Sometimes, a full change of career requires going back to school part time. Given the opportunity presented by COVID-19 in regard to the switch to online course delivery, it is now possible to retool on your own time. The long-term benefits of this include the fact that when you work for yourself, you never actually have to retire. The ability to do this means that it you have greater financial control over your life for the foreseeable future while getting fulfillment from a job you actually enjoy.
Although barriers to self-employment do exist, if we change our mindset it is possible to see opportunities where they lie. It may mean working collaboratively with others to improve the earnings of all. An example of this is agreeing to enter shared spaces where rent is split as more of a “collective” of independent professionals whose services dovetail in ways that can be profitable to all. Most importantly, breaking down these barriers means mentoring those who come behind us to ensure that they too can maximize their potential and stop the reliance on employment rather than self-employment. This is certainly one way of making the world a more equal place.
As a final note, I would strongly encourage anyone who can access the services of a counsellor who specialises in transitions and career counselling to do so. These are people who have at least a master’s degree in psychology where they specifically trained to do work with people around career opportunities based on personality, skill set, interests and the demands of different industries in the environment. This work is highly individual in nature and can help with charting the direction of your career in a manner that is not a one-size-fits-all. May 2021 bring us all greater clarity and hope so that we can live our lives intentionally and have the joyous careers we all crave.