In the current turbulent global political climate, a job or a career for life for those just starting out in the workplace is no longer guaranteed — or even desirable. Add in the climate crisis and wider anxiety about the future, and the feeling of worry and lack of control could potentially become overwhelming.
How can students, new graduates and those who advise and recruit them find a meaningful way to plan for the decades ahead?
The traditional versions of sage and sometimes staid advice — go into the professions, train for something, get a job with a good pension and so on — that was given to older Boomers, Generation X and even Millennials now seems quaint and often redundant for Generation Z (born 1995-2010).
One of the marked changes in response to uncertainty — one we have seen at Oxford university, where I head the careers service, and at other universities — is a clear increase in the numbers of students making an early start on their career planning.
Compared with 2018, twice the number of students visited the general, non-industry specific, careers fair at Oxford in autumn 2019 or attended employer presentations, while 65 per cent continued to open our weekly careers emails.
We undertake an annual survey of all undergraduate and graduate students asking them their frame of mind and industry interests — if any. This year, only 25 per cent of first year students at Oxford reported that they were postponing all their career plans, compared with a stable level of 35 per cent over the past few years.
Brexit and climate change
Brexit and the climate crisis are the two external uncertainties already having an impact on students’ lives. In late 2018, Anna Olerinyova, an Oxford doctoral student in Biophysics, considered quitting her research studies and drastically changing career path because of these twin worries.
She decided to stay on, but says: “On reflection, Brexit will just make staying and finding research funding more difficult, but not impossible.” She had worried that her research in medical diagnostic tools would be irrelevant because “there was a good chance that there would be no money in future for this work as it would all be focused on climate problems, coupled with the fact that my subject would be less relevant leaving little point in continuing”.
Ms Olerinyova is now engaged in climate activism, and it has had a positive effect overall. “It has made my life much more interesting, bonding together with a whole new community of people.” She feels freed from career expectations and much more open-minded on where life will take her. She is now determined to complete her PhD, seeing a “glimmer of hope in the use of my research.”
A little further on in her career, Sarah McGill, who leads a climate change research policy programme at Oxford’s Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, is working on short-term contracts and, as she puts it, has a feeling of veering off the “straight and narrow path my classmates at Columbia University followed into law school and Wall Street”.
Since she holds research degrees in economics and the environment, Ms McGill’s uncertainty focuses on a single question: “How can I make a meaningful impact with my career? There is no obvious job title to search for, and those that might look impactful don’t pay a living wage.”
Competition is increasing
Alan Percy, chair of Mental Wellbeing in Higher Education, a working group of experts, and head of the counselling service at Oxford university, observes that one of the causes of increasing uncertainty is the wider economic environment in which everyone must be more competitive.
“The classic defensive psychological reaction is to create certainty by controlling things; this is a poor action to take as it increases rigidity of thinking,” Mr Percy says.
Given that is impossible to be in control of most things (Brexit, climate crisis, politics) such rigidity creates more anxiety, while at the same time giving power to external forces. Mr Percy suggests that to reduce such feelings of powerlessness and hopelessness, people can aim to “concentrate, appreciate and celebrate what they have and what they can control”.
Some young professionals are embracing uncertainty as a positive force. Christine-Marié Louw studied law, then took a masters degree in music and currently works as an analyst at BP. She is able to combine her work with a semi-professional music career. “I have a high appetite for ambiguity,” she says. “And I try not to let external forces control me.”
Having decided not to buy a property, she invested instead in an ambitious expedition with her brother, exploring the tributaries of a river system in Indonesia. Each day they would set off and had to choose which tributary to take. She says that the experience created valuable insights: “The uncertainty of the outcome generated possibilities; I was comfortable with failure — just making the decision to choose a specific path was enough,” she says.
Ms Louw followed the popular path from undergraduate to a masters degree. There are three main reasons that students give for immediately following an undergraduate degree with advanced study. It can be a way to increase career choice, or to keep studying because the student enjoys it and is fulfilled. Finally, for the undecided it is a way to postpone the entry to work for a year or two.
There has been a marked drop in the proportion of Oxford undergraduates taking this route, from 35 per cent five years ago to 30 per cent now. More students are opting to go straight into work after graduation.
Setting up a business
The most uncertain path for new graduates is that of starting their own business. Even so, it is a choice being considered by more than a fifth of Oxford students, across men and women equally.
However popular start-up culture has become, the young may not have an advantage here. A study, led by Pierre Azoulay of MIT and Benjamin F Jones of the Kellogg School of Management, of 2.7m founders from 2007-2014, established that those under 25 have the lowest likelihood of a successful exit or creating a top growth firm. The most successful founders were aged 46-55, with more skills and experience to navigate the many uncertainties of business.
There will always be uncertainty around future events and people will always react in different ways, from feeling powerless to thriving. And it helps to know this is not a new phenomenon. Victor Hugo, the 19th century French novelist, captured a positive and rather uplifting way to view and manage uncertainty: “Be as a bird perched on a frail branch that she feels bending beneath her, still she sings away all the same, knowing she has wings.”
Jonathan Black is head of the careers service at Oxford university and writes the FT’s ‘Dear Jonathan’ advice column
How to manage ups and downs
● Recognise and accept that there will be uncertainty around many future events; consider the opportunities that uncertainty might bring.
● There is a structural increase in uncertainty as you move along the path from school (rigid) to university (more freedom and choices within a structure) to the workplace (no future guarantees, you are likely to have to create your own pathways).
● Reflect that you have already coped with uncertainty in the past and will be able to do so again. Of the hundreds of concerns you have had in your life, almost all have been solved.
● Focus on activities inside your zone of control: your skills, experiences and choices.
● Avoid trying to impose a structure on essentially uncontrollable events.
● From a career point of view, up-to-date, deep technical or vocational skills and broad, transferable employability skills are key.
● In workplaces, seek ways to demonstrate that you take responsibility and achieve things in teamwork, leadership, communication, problem solving and initiative.
● Outside work, gain experience and transferable skills by joining a charity board or volunteering.
● Build your vocational skills for example in coding, learning a language or writing a blog.