On the first day of his first job out of college, Eric Pait was amped. It was June 2014, and Pait had just graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Some of his friends were starting internships; others were still unemployed. Pait considered himself one of the lucky ones—not just for having a job, but for having one he actually wanted, as a front-end web developer for a software service company.
At least, that's what he thought. It only took a few months for Pait to realize this was nothing like the job he'd imagined, or the one described in the job listing. He was bored, spent a lot of time surfing the web, and was asked to do very basic tasks rather than apply the web development skills he'd learned in school and on his own. "It was all pretty much menial grunt work," he told me. Six months later, he quit.
He's not an anomaly. Seven in ten Americans say their current job fell short of their expectations, according to a survey published Thursday by Kununu, an employer review platform. The percentage is even higher among millennials, only 19 percent of whom said their job was "as described and expected." That gap is widest for the first job out of college.
Other surveys have showed that millennials aren't exactly thrilled by their jobs: The overwhelming majority are mentally checked out at work and nearly half are actively looking for a new job, sometimes while on the clock for their current job. Last year, the median length of time 20- to 24-year-olds spent in a job was just 16 months, according to Bureau of Labor statistics.
Looking at this data, it's easy to fall back on stereotypes about millennials as entitled brats who expect work to be fun and need to toughen up to life in the real world. But the lack of engagement at work isn't necessarily the result of a coddled upbringing: For a lot of young people, their first job is the first time they've had to contemplate the shape of their careers.
"College doesn't actually prepare you for asking the serious questions like, 'What do I actually want out of work? What is meaningful work to me?'" Adam Smiley Poswolsky, a career expert and the author of the forthcoming bookThe Quarter Life Breakthrough, told VICE. "So it's like, 'Go to college and get a job,' and then [young people] are disappointed because they haven't thought of what they actually want to spend their time doing."
"It's so sad, because I look back at how excited I was for this and it's nothing like what I pictured."
When I asked my own friends about their first few job experiences, virtually everyone said they'd been disappointed. Positions that seemed like dream jobs turned out to be boring, stressful, or completely different than the way they'd been described. As one friend put it, "There were many times when I was like, Holy shit, is this what having a job is like?"
Another friend, who works at a small consulting firm in Philadelphia, said he could've never imagined being so miserable when he took the job a year ago. (He asked that I not use his name, since he still works there.) The company had billed itself as consulting firm focused on nonprofits and sociological research, but the clients ended up being mostly "rich people starting philanthropies." The job description had mentioned qualitative data collection, but it turned out that meant transcribing audio for hours and hours. "It's so sad," he said, "because I look back at how excited I was for this, and it's nothing like what I pictured."
Of course, it's not just millennials—having a shitty first job is almost a rite of passage, and has been for generations. But for millennials, it's not just that working a 40-hour workweek (or longer) is hard to get used to or that it sucks to be at the bottom of the office totem pole. Research shows that 20-somethings today care more about doing meaningful work than almost anything else, including high salaries. At the same time, less than one-third feel like their is job is making full use of their skills.
"Having a job that matters is very important to millennials," said Lee Caraher, author of Millennials and Management: The Essential Guide To Making It Work At Work. According to Caraher, every job is important—"no one pays someone to do a job that doesn't matter"—but employers don't always do a great job of explaining that to younger employees, and it can leave a lot of people feeling under-appreciated.
The current job market has also made it harder for millennials to be selective about the type of work they take. After the economic crash in 2008, towering unemployment rates created a generation that a Newsweek headline described as "young, educated, and jobless." Caraher pointed out that there are "a lot of millennials around the country who are still waiting for jobs commensurate with their education."
When Pait graduated in 2014, he and his friends were all freaked out about the weak job market by the time they started looking for jobs. That year, the unemployment rate for people under 25 was 14.5 percent, more than twice the overall rate of unemployment. (VICE even ran an article titled, "Dear Class of 2014, You're Fucked.")
"When I took this job, I had a month left on my lease, and I was still trying to figure out what I was doing, so there was definitely a lot pressure to find something," Pait said. "I took the first serious offer I got."
After he quit, Pait said he already felt "burned out" and decided to study for the LSAT rather than finding another web development job. And increasingly, millennials like him seem to have no problem quitting their nine-to-five jobs to pursue grad school, freelance jobs, or start their own businesses—basically anything other than getting another shitty job.
Poswolsky said it's a mistake to throw in the towel that soon. First jobs suck, sure, but the only way you can really know what you want down the line is to suffer a little bit in those first few years of employment. Plus, your first job out of college won't—and shouldn't be—your dream job. It's just one step on the path to figuring out what your dream job looks like.
"We could do better at putting in the time, paying our dues," he told me. "You know, shutting up and doing the work."
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