Reading: Aspiring Adults Adrift

Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s earlier book, Academically Adrift, keeps coming up in my reading, but this follow-up, Aspiring Adults Adrift, speaks more to Launch Like A Rocket’s mission. Subtitled “Tentative Transitions of College Graduates,” in this book they “illuminate other aspects of collegiate experience that students themselves value, and also examine the relationship between collegiate experience and transitions to adulthood after college.” They note that often the experience students are getting in “getting along with others” actually involves getting along with similar people—not something the modern workplace team is going to value or reward. Their surveys show that students value the extracurricular experience and that, in fact, their references in surveys and interviews to academic performance is mostly focused on meeting the minimum requirements for graduation, clearly not demonstrating a huge value on the learning itself.  They note that “Given students’ focus on social and extracurricular activities during college, we may have expected most respondents to emphasize soft-skill development above all else when discussing how college helped them perform their jobs.” And yet they find these skills are no more valued that any others by the students. They also quote more research showing 90% of employers highly value these skills and find “more than 90 percent of employers rating written communication, critical thinking, and problem solving as ‘very important‘ for the job success of new labor market entrants.”

I previously hadn’t considered civic engagement, nor seen statistics on that issue, but would have guessed young people today were far more engaged than in the past. News coverage makes it seem young people are engaged, and certainly technological access has made it much easier to stay up on current affairs. Surprisingly the authors point to research showing “Since the 1970s, civic engagement among young adults has decreased along almost all of the dimensions tracked by social scientists, form belonging to clubs and attending religious services at least once a month to reading newspapers and voting…Only approximately one-third of college graduates were reading newspapers online or in print daily, and only 16 percent were discussing politics and public affairs with family or friends that frequently.” Again, this was really surprising to read. Given the booming online access to documentaries and the near endless supply inexpensively and conveniently available via iTunes, Netflix, and the like as well as the success of news shows like Vice or even humorous commentary from The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and HBO’s Last Week Tonight, I would have expected very different statistics.

Why does civic engagement matter in the context of launching a career? It‘s a hallmark of adulthood to be engaged in the success of society, to be thinking about balancing the needs of our society now with the needs of the future. For example, let’s assume that we’d all like tax cuts now but we also don’t want our bridges to collapse in the next 20 years. We have to collectively weigh what taxes we are willing to pay to ensure our bridges are maintained for both safety and to save the much larger, albeit future, expense of replacing them prematurely due to too much deferred maintenance. So we vote and the majority of us decide how society as a whole should act. If I’m young and starting a career, those bridges in the future are more valuable to me but if I’m young I can also less well afford a tax increase, although my lower income might mean it won’t fall as heavily on me in absolute dollars or even as a percentage in our progressive tax system. If I’m close to retiring and no longer commuting and perhaps not worried about bridge lifespan beyond my own lifespan, I might also have higher income and, while I’d lose more dollars to the increased taxes, I may have less need of every single dollar. Of course, there’s also the issue of human capital: When you’re young, your biggest asset is your ability to earn, while when you’re older you may have depleted that asset to nothing, and are now living off the material assets you accumulated, so your feeling about money and taxes is seen through that position in life as well. For a democratic society to maximize the good for the group as a whole, we need the various viewpoints to weight in equally. If you’re not engaged and informed on these kinds of decisions about the future of society, it’s difficult to imagine that you can have the information you need to take a similar view of a school, business, hospital, or anywhere else you might launch a career. And if you can’t get a reasoned perspective of the organization’s goals, it’s going to be tough to find your place or know what to do to ensure your success.

Recommendation? Thought-provoking but like many of the books on my list, very academic. If you’re looking for a Malcolm Gladwell, Freakanomics view of the facts, this book isn’t it. It’s interesting that so many of these books extolling the need for top-notch written and oral communication skills are so clearly written for an academic audience. I think it’s possible to write, footnote and appendix to your academic heart’s content and still write a compelling story, but for some reason I don’t see a lot of this. My assumption is that these books aren’t written for non-academic audiences, but if you go into it knowing that, hungry for the information, it’s a solid piece of work. (I’ve barely skimmed the surface here.) If you are tempted, I confess that I find academic books much easier to read in just one or two sittings, highlighter in hand, otherwise you lose the thread.

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