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College Grads: You're Better Off Than You Think

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There's a lot of talk right now about how bad the prospects are for you college grads. Some point to high unemployment and the unreported underemployment -- grads taking jobs that don't require a college degree. Some call you the "lost generation" because you might not have the financial success of past generations, and pundits are even suggesting that grads move overseas to find good jobs. All of this is bull. Yes, times are hard, but you have things to look forward to. To start, the employment trend is improving. Secondly, financial success does not necessarily translate into happiness, so you aren't missing out there. Third, expectations about your prospects are at an all-time low because of the economy. You can take advantage of this to try something new. And lastly, you are not alone. We're in the middle of an economic transition that's affecting everyone, not just your generation.

Take heart in knowing that your fellow college grads are optimistic. In an AfterCollege snapshot survey of 1,005 college students and recent grads, 45 percent reported that they were having a difficult time finding work. You may think this is a high percentage, but last year, the number of students having difficulty was 63 percent, and it was 75 percent the previous year. In 2010, 86 percent of students were having difficulty securing work. The trend has been steadily improving over the last four years and prospects will only get better as the economy improves, even if it does so slowly. While it's hard to predict the future, it's more likely that things will improve, so many students in your graduating class are justifiably optimistic.

Take the time to discover what happiness means for you. There are countless articles on how your generation is financially worse off than previous ones, but financial success is only a small part of the picture. You may not be in a position to buy a house or a car, but this doesn't mean you can't be happy. In fact, most people who buy a house or a new car end up taking on a lot debt to do so. Today, we have services like ZipCar and CityCarShare that allow you to enjoy a car for a few hours without having to worry about insurance, gas, maintenance, etc. If you want a nice house, you can stay in one for a night or two through services like AirBnB and VRBO. You are living in a time when you can enjoy the finer things without needing to commit to a lot of debt. There's also plenty of research out there, like this article from the Review of General Psychology (PDF) by Sonja Lyubomirsky, Kennon M. Sheldon, and David Schkade, that shows we can quickly adapt to external changes and feel a boost temporarily, but this happiness dissipates quickly and we're no better off than before. Moreover, college students in our recent survey ranked work/life balance as the number one factor when looking at potential employers, with salary coming in second. This is yet another sign that money is not the most important thing for millennials and that your generation seems to have its priorities in the right place. So discover what it means to be happy for you. Chances are you don't need a lot of money for this.

Take advantage of low expectations. Right now is the time to try new things. Back in 1999, I was a gainfully employed recent college grad. I had a great job, a great boss, and I was learning a lot. I gave all this up to start my own company, AfterCollege, which is something I wanted to do since college. When I told my family I was quitting my job to start a company, it was the worst news I could have given them. They had high expectations of me and it took about six years, hiring our 30th employee, and an invitation to the White House before they realized I was onto something. If you don't have a job after graduation, try different internships. Explore various careers. You should even start a business if you have the inclination to do so. The time is right, expectations are low, and you have a lot more to gain than to lose.

Also, remember you are not alone. The Great Recession affected everyone and not just college grads. The economy is improving and jobs are coming back, but not as quickly as anticipated. As a former professor and advisor of mine, Erik Brynjolfsson points out in a book he recently co-authored, Race Against the Machine, technological innovation is increasing productivity, but it is also contributing to a delay in job creation. This delay affects everyone. At the same time, the book points to a growing economic divide between those with relevant skills and those without them. Having a willingness to keep learning gives you an advantage. As college grads, you may think your studying days are behind you, but you will most likely have to continue learning throughout your life. You are used to studying and adept at picking up new skills quickly. Take advantage of this and know you are not alone.

You are graduating at a good time. The economy is gradually improving and no one is expecting much from you. If buying a house or a car is what you really want, you'll have plenty of time to do this later. Take advantage of this freedom to try new things and explore various careers. Find what makes you happy.