By Delaine Lorio.
There was once a time when a bachelor’s degree was considered a person’s one-way ticket to career success. It was regarded as normal to assume that a young person who achieved this level of higher education would equally hold the best employment prospects and have the best chances of getting the top-tier job. However, the current reality reflects very little of what was once the gold standard of the past.
In a society which expects everyone to go to college, there has been a substantial increase in young people entering higher education. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in the fall of 2010, 21.0 million Americans enrolled in university compared to just 15.3 million only ten years earlier. Data from UCAS in the UK, meanwhile, reveals that in 2016, the total number of students enrolled in A-level courses grew by 4,000. The following year, it was announced that a record number of 18-year-olds in the UK had been accepted at a university or college.
With this increased influx of people going to university and consequently earning degrees, the number of college graduates vying for jobs has inevitably risen. In 2017, Statista found that 41% of the adult population of New Zealand hold a university degree. In the United States, the Pew Research Center found in 2016 that about 40% of American workers aged between 25 and 29 hold bachelor’s degrees, versus just 26% and 32% in 1985 and 2000 respectively. Other technological and social developments have also contributed to this increase, including an expansion of methods for earning a degree such as online programs from both private and public institutions. In terms of financial barriers to higher education, they are in some cases, such as Scotland, greatly minimized with university being tuition-free and therefore more accessible.
I must stress that I am in no way implying that having more people pursuing higher education is a bad thing. This article recognizes and praises efforts to make it more accessible and available for people who wish to continue their studies at a higher level but are hindered due to either financial or other constraints. However, it is important to also recognize how this development changes the demographics of the job market and equally challenges both millennials and Generation Z in attaining the job they want. Although noted in the context of an imaginary world with superheroes (i.e. The Incredibles), there is some truth in the notion that “when everyone is super, no one will be.” If everyone has a degree, it no longer serves as a differentiator between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ applicants for employers, as its value has become diminished. It becomes the norm. As a consequence, it has become more difficult for university students to attain professional work with just a degree. This struggle is highlighted by the findings from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), which discovered that 3.5 years post-university life, more than 20% of graduates held jobs that did not need a degree and were working in areas such as sales and customer service.
So ultimately, at this point, you may be asking yourself – what does this all mean to me? Are you saying that my degree is completely worthless? Is my future that bleak? Of course not. In many ways, because so many now have an undergraduate degree, it has become even more imperative to earn one. For people without a degree, it is near impossible to get high-paying work, given that there are so many qualified applicants available. Additionally, gaining a degree enables you to develop your way of thinking and gain the relevant skills you need to pursue the career you want.
However, what is important for millennial and Generation Z students, including myself (and what this article strives to do) is to expose the harsh reality we face. The worse decision a person can make is to ignore this development and consequentially set themselves up for future disappointment and job struggles. We live in a much more competitive world. We have to work harder than previous generations in some ways. We are expected to have experience in a field we are only just studying. We are expected to have the right employability skills despite often being in our 20s. Degrees on their own are no longer enough.
Although the current reality for students is daunting, it does not mean it should be disempowering. As former disabled tennis player and current motivational speaker Roger Crawford said: “Being challenged in life is inevitable, being defeated is optional.” With these words in mind, I encourage people to face it for what it is and see it as an opportunity to grow instead. Be proactive in building your abilities and experience. Take advantage of opportunities to build your competitive edge. Whether that is pursuing an advanced degree after your undergrad or doing extra-curricular activities during university, it is important for millennials and Gen Z to invest in their personal development and be proactive in improving themselves in order to adapt to our current reality.