In the Sunday, July 17th Jobs section of the New York Times, Kathy Calvin, the Chief Executive of the United Nations Foundation, said, "If I had it to do over, I'd probably bring more young people into the organization at an earlier stage." She then added, "I remember Jack Welch of General Electric saying having a young person just out of college as a 'mentor' kept him fresh."
Calvin's comments highlight an often-overlooked asset young people have when searching for a way to position themselves in the job market, and also remind us of a critical, and very recent, generational shift in workplace power. Unemployment and underemployment numbers can blind us to the fact that we all, regardless of age or background, now have unprecedented access to what once was proprietary information. Much of what was controlled and disseminated only by corporations and academic institutions we can now access ourselves -- at our own pace and on our own time -- as we gain expertise and skills that can be leveraged to get a job or build a career. And while we all now have almost unrestricted access to self-education, as a defining generational marker, many young people today are finding themselves to be far more tech savvy than their bosses (or potential bosses) -- and we need to capitalize on this fact as well..
Consider that a generation ago if you wanted to work in finance you likely majored in economics or business, took upward of a dozen related courses, and then applied for a job. With all due respect, even though you had a degree and you may have followed the closing price of stocks printed in the newspaper each day, you knew very little about the world of finance -- a fact that forced you to rely on your employer to teach you everything you needed to know in order to succeed at work. Just a generation ago, the concept of a young person fresh out of college "mentoring" or keeping the likes of a Jack Welch "fresh" was, well, comparatively preposterous.
Today, if you want to work on Wall Street, you most probably selected a similar major as the student a generation ago. But you also might list Fast Money and Squawk On the Street as your favorite television shows, had the Wall Street Journal emailed to you each morning since high school, religiously read Barron's and Slate online, tracked real-time stock quotes on your mobile device and followed market fluctuation from your laptop during class.
Perhaps you even completed a summer program at the Grameen Bank, or financed a microloan for a farmer in Kenya with a donation through Kiva funded by the profits from the stock tip you gave your dad back in the eighth grade. It is also possible that your senior year of college, when you stopped after class to discuss the europessimists and Paul Krugman's enlightening piece on the concept of European unified currency -- which he wrote way back in 1998 -- your economics professor interrupted the conversation to ask you to show him/her how to follow Krugman on Twitter. And while you are in the lobby waiting for a job interview? You can check the new Conference Board consumer confidence report and the closing price of light crude in the Asian markets. And if that job interviewer brings up start-ups? You very well might mention your own. The one you launched from your dorm room in college.
There is no question that the gatekeepers of information have shifted from "them" to "us," and with unrestricted access to the virtual syllabus of the Internet we are all now dependent on our own abilities and willingness to self-educate in order to render ourselves competitive in the marketplace. Yet these "soft" skills that we acquire ourselves are often difficult to translate onto a resume.
So let us not forget that with all the gloom and doom about a failing economy and high unemployment, we also have tremendous educational assets at our fingertips -- literally. And for those of us willing to do the work, this manifests as power. So, rather than looking at unemployment statistics and selling ourselves short, we should avoid the trap of perceiving our careers and life trajectories as chaotic systems -- collections of nonlinear, random events, like the weather, over which we have very little control. Although the job hunt can often feel like a series of unpredictable storms mixed in with too few sunny days, our career trajectories are hardly chaotic systems at all. We have more control over the outcomes of our lives than any previous generation and more power to affect change in our lives than we may think. The task at hand is how to position ourselves favorably and make it clear that with our skills, we are more than worthy of keeping Jack Welch or Kathy Calvin "fresh."