Post-Graduation Plans Draw Unnecessary Judgment

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With the announcement that Michelle Obama will speak at this year’s Commencement, graduation is looking more exciting. But for those of us in the class of 2015, any excitement about accepting a diploma is compounded with anxiety about what comes next.

And that’s more than just a question we’re asking ourselves. Parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, professors — they all want to know: “What are you doing after graduation?” While this question is usually motivated by well-meaning curiosity or support, the answer is often an opening for commentary, judgment and unsolicited advice.

Students typically respond with one of three answers: either no idea, a half-formed plan of where they’ll live or what field they’re interested in or, on the rare occasion, a set-in-stone plan of action. Not one of these options, however, is free from judgment. Even if you have committed to a job or to graduate school, the people around you question your early commitment to something so specific. If you don’t have a plan next year, you open yourself up to a spread of anxiety-inducing questions.

For the adults who ask these questions, this usually seems to come from a kind-hearted and genuine place; the intent is not to incite panic, but unfortunately, that’s often the consequence. Once you’re beyond graduation, with a steady career, it’s easy to reflect back on this moment as full of limitless potential. Nostalgic minds are quick to forget the shared sense of abject panic. The failing economy and limited job market also make this quite a different world to graduate into than previous generations have experienced.

In this pivotal moment, the rest of our lives feel predicated on our impending next step. For the past four or five years, we’ve moved from place to place but always within familiar territory. Now, for the first time, many of us don’t know where we’ll be living or what we’ll be doing in one month. While we had a similar moment of transformation after high school graduation, the continuation of school, even in a different state or country, offered the comfort of a familiar institution.

Even when we were making college decisions, it felt like our whole futures rode on that one choice. And whatever you were considering or deciding, every adult in your life had an opinion or a kind morsel of advice. For most of us, though, we’re launching into an unknown job market, and many of us find ourselves unprepared to commit to a direction for the rest of our lives.

And that’s okay. Our first year in college, many of us had no idea what we would end up majoring in, and it took us a while to find our niche at Oberlin. Our first year out of Oberlin will be our real-world freshman year. It is vastly unlikely that any decision we make will drastically alter our life paths.

According to a 2012 Forbes article, while workers on average stay in a job for 4.4 years, Millennials report that they plan to stay in one job for fewer than three years (“Job Hopping Is the ‘New Normal’ for Millennials: Three Ways to Prevent a Human Resource Nightmare,” Forbes, Aug. 4, 2012). In an article published this February, the majority of Millennials surveyed reported that they believed job hopping was good for their career (“Is Job Hopping Losing Its Bad Rap?,” Entrepreneur, Feb. 1, 2015). This suggests that any decisions we make are likely impermanent; a majority of people change careers in their life, and we’re doing it more and more often.

In 2014, Review columnist Aidan Apel wrote a column warning that Oberlin is the worst return on investment (“Oberlin College Ranked U.S.’s Worst Return on Investment,” The Oberlin Review, March 11, 2014). Some of that is to be expected: Most of us didn’t come here to get a high-paying job working on Wall Street. Liberal arts degrees prioritize learning, not necessarily immediate employment.

When well-meaning adults about post-graduation plans, the fear that emerges and the panic that fills our eyes comes from asking ourselves the real question: “Are we ready to decide what we want to do for the rest of our lives?” The answer is no, we’re not. What we do next is not a profound determination of our life course. It’s time to take the pressure off, tone the judgment down and choose something that’s fulfilling, for now.

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