College seniors are preparing to enter a changing workforce

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The workplace of employees has changed a lot in the last two years. Remote work has evolved from a quirky benefit to a shared experience. Workers up to the C-suite have reassessed what they want from a job. And expectations about when and where to work have evolved.

As leaders scramble to merge what’s left of the “old days” with pandemic-related work shifts, college grads prepare to enter the workforce for the first time. The new normal will be their first normal.

With almost every aspect of their college experience turned upside down, this year’s grads are more used than most to living with uncertainty. The approximately two million people who will earn a bachelor’s degree from a US college or university this year have pursued academic and professional ambitions despite campus closures, online courses and distance internships.

For better or for worse, they are entering the new work landscape without memories of life before the pandemic guiding or influencing their decisions.

DealBook spoke to 10 seniors graduating from universities across the US about how they envision their careers—where they will work, how they will work, and what factors might influence their decisions. Their goals, interests, and perspectives vary, but nearly all expect careers that are less linear and more dynamic than those of previous generations.

And they are ready for it. “I don’t care too much about change. It’s happening,” said Austin Rosas, 23, an economist at Texas A&M University with a math minor. “Adaptation is what matters.”

Salaries and benefits are important. But for a growing number of younger workers, a company’s culture and values ​​are at least as important as individual compensation.

In a survey commissioned by software company Atlassian last year, 61 percent of US millennials — currently the largest generation in the workforce — said they prefer companies that make a commitment to social causes, and 49 percent said they that they would stop work that didn’t align with their values, both significant increases from the previous year.

The most important of these values ​​are diversity and inclusivity. The National Association of Colleges and Employers surveys graduates each year about what they want from an employer. The proportion of respondents who say that a company’s diversity is important or very important to them has increased every year since 2015, with 71.8 percent of this year’s students citing it as a top priority, said Andrea Koncz, the association’s research manager.

  • “In addition to values, the impact an organization has drives my decision to work and stay in a particular place.”— Citlali Blanco, 22, human biologist at Stanford University

  • “I hope my future workplace is an environment that is collaborative, inclusive and values ​​its people. I want a workplace where I feel safe and comfortable sharing my voice, as well as a place where I can continue and grow in the area I want to be successful in.”— Rebecca Hart, 22, Public Relations and Strategic Communications at American University

  • “My workplace will probably be either in a hospital or a doctor’s office, where I hope to see even greater equality between men and women in managerial positions. I also hope that my workplace is fully inclusive and represents a variety of people, both among my colleagues and among the patients we serve every day.”— Selena Zhang, 21, major in computational biology at Brown University

Knowledge-based activities referred to as “office work” no longer have to be carried out in the office. In the next few years, the number of people in the United States doing most or all of their work remotely is expected to surpass 36 million, said Johnny C. Taylor, chief executive officer of the Society for Human Resource Management -​ ​double the pre-pandemic number.

How that looks for each industry, company and team is in flux, often driven by employees looking to retain some of the benefits of the remote schedules imposed early in the pandemic. Hybrid working hours, flexible working hours and policies to work where you want will play a much bigger role in this generation’s careers.

  • “While I really hope to work in an office, I want it to be fun, an office where I’m expected to show up on time and get my work done, but allow me the freedom to be creative in my work and work his place. I definitely want to work full time. I love being almost too busy.”— Sidney Stull, 21, communications major at Boise State University

  • “As someone who works in tech, I’ve largely accepted that most of my work is done at a desk in front of a screen. On the one hand, I’m excited for all the valuable random ideas and eureka moments that I’ve been promised for a long time. On the other hand, I find that creative work is quite a vulnerable process and I often appreciate being at home to explore what’s on my mind.”— Oliver Feuerhahn, 21, graduated in Economics and Social Sciences from Minerva University

  • “Because I’m starting out as an investment banking analyst, I expect to be office based full-time as per industry standards. While this work environment may have fallen out of favor with other members of my generation, I genuinely look forward to the opportunity.”— Costa Kosmidis, 22, finance major at Fordham University

With wages lagging behind inflation, it’s harder to make ends meet today than it was a generation ago. According to census data, the percentage of US workers who have more than one job at a time has increased steadily over the past decade. Less formal surveys have found that younger workers are more likely than older colleagues to have part-time jobs or activities. Nearly half of millennials surveyed in a 2018 survey by financial services firm Bankrate said they have at least part-time paid second jobs. (These surveys do not count unpaid care services.)

But a full-time job is just that. Some industries — notably finance — still place junior staff on schedules that leave little time for showers and sleep, let alone checking in elsewhere.

  • “I might see myself in counseling on the side. It’s getting harder and harder these days to sustain the lifestyle you want without multiple sources of income, so I keep that in mind.” Sydney Stull

  • “I don’t expect to have more than one job at a time. I’d rather have one full-time job that I’m super invested in.” Abby Mapes, 22, a computer science student at Duke University

  • “I can’t imagine I could stand it. I really worry about the time outside of work and the opportunity to spend time with people who are important to me. Most important to me is a work environment that allows me flexible hours to spend with my family whenever later the need arises.” Wylie Greeson, 21, Environmental Earth Sciences and English major at the College of Wooster

The accelerating pace of technological change is creating new fields and industries as quickly as it is destroying old ones. A company or industry that is thriving at the time of graduation may barely exist 20 years later. Combine that with a longer lifespan and a recent graduate is even more likely to progress through multiple careers in their lifetime.

  • “I really hope to have multiple careers. Realistically, I know I’ll be working a traditional job until I’m 30. Hopefully I can shift my meaning from “work” to something more project based by 40. And after 50 I can concentrate on other pleasant things in life. I think I always want to contribute to interesting companies while I can, but I also don’t feel the need to put too much stress on myself.”– Oliver Feuerhahn

  • “Even deciding what to do after graduation was difficult for me, so I don’t expect to work in the same field for the rest of my career. Being able to learn and grow through action is what drives me, and moving forward for me means adapting and embracing new challenges through creative thinking.”— Amy Liu, 21, economist at the University of California, Los Angeles

This generation is unlikely to retire the way their grandparents or great-grandparents did, both out of necessity and out of choice. Although many older workers have been pushed to take early retirement during the pandemic, the trend towards longer life expectancies and the decline in comfortable pensions are likely to lengthen working lives.

It doesn’t have to be tedious work. A report released last year by the Stanford Center on Longevity called for careers to be redesigned so people work longer, but with fewer days a week and fewer hours a day.

  • “I have a strong belief that I will continue to work past the golden years of retirement if I am still able to provide cutting edge work that supports my team and my career brings me happiness. “– Amy Liu

This year’s new hires have seen firsthand how quickly the world can change. It’s no surprise that most of them anticipate major changes in companies during their careers.

Some of these are already underway. As burnout and exhaustion have prompted workers to resign in droves, more organizations are accelerating their efforts to integrate employee wellbeing into organizational productivity. Experimenting around the world in a four-day work week has proven profitable for both workers and employers.

  • “I look forward to employees being viewed holistically, with mental, social and physical needs impacting performance. It would be great to see workplaces promote community building, proper nutrition, environmental sustainability, fitness and stress reduction. That would greatly improve the lives of so many people.”— Citlali Blanco

  • “I hope that a four-day work week becomes the norm and I hope that the emphasis on mental, emotional and social health catches on in the workforce.”– Wylie Greeson

  • “I see the workplace becoming a lot more collaborative over the years. I see a dismantling of hierarchy leading to a more team-based organizational structure. I think this will be beneficial not only for the work at hand, but also for the people doing the work.”– Sidney Stull

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