Ann Markusen

Moving beyond high school to a lifetime of work is not easy. In high school, most things are dished up for you. You have some choice over subjects you study. You may have worked part-time, and you chose which extra-curricular activities you engaged in. But whether you go on to college or enter the workforce directly, you face daunting choices and tradeoffs. If you go to college, what will you specialize in and how much debt are you willing to take on? If you go directly into the workforce, what and where and how will you hope to work? Will you find it in a place you want to live and where your work is meaningful?

New research from the Economic Policy Institute offers solid evidence on high school grads’ experience over the past 20 years. Using the Current Population Survey, EPI studied the experience of recent high school grads, aged 18 to 21. The good news is that your job prospects are better now than they were for grads during the Great Recession of 2007-9. But not as good as they were for those who graduated in 2000. A troubling development is the rise of underemployment: Not being able to find full-time work. And black workers face a widening gap with others. 

Many of you will go on to pursue and possibly complete college educations. But because of sluggish growth in family income and escalating costs for college credits, many of you may have to shoulder significant debt to do so. Furthermore, college credits don’t improve employment prospects for many college goers, and especially for those who do not graduate or who attend for-profit colleges, EPI’s study found.

Finding a good job is not that easy. The EPI researchers found that nearly one in 10 young high school grads not enrolled in further schooling is unemployed. And many are underemployed: Working part-time when they want full-time jobs, or so discouraged that they have given up looking for work after an active search. 

The choices you make now will shape your work future. It’s worth starting with what matters to you. Of course, income is important. But what about the quality of work? Here are ideas from a piece I wrote for Pacific Standard magazine in 2015. If you’re going to spend 40 hours a week working, it should be pleasurable and meaningful, including a sense that you are helping others. You hope for growing expertise and greater accomplishment over time, perhaps more responsibility. For agreeable human contact at work. For competence, training and respect from superiors, and for opportunities to cooperate with and learn from others. We search for work that plays to our strengths and that we love to do. And for work environments where we feel safe, including from sexual harassment.

And as workers, we care about the relationship of our jobs to the rest of our lives. We hope for reasonable and reliable work hours, flexible if possible, and paid family and sick leave. Ample vacation time. Work should not leave us exhausted or debilitated, or worse, sick with an occupational disease or serious injury. 

For those of you not pursuing college study, I recommend a proactive job search. Ask employers you might be interested in working for if you can have an informational interview. In these, you ask the questions, and write down the answers. Make a research project out of it. Be respectful, curious and maybe even crack a joke! Maybe you’ll impress an employer you’d like to work for in the future. Inquire about the qualifications they are searching for and whether a certain course of study would be useful. Ask your neighbors, relatives and friends of your parents to talk about their work with you – what qualifications and study they needed to land the job, what boss/worker relationships are like for them, and whether they are content or ambitious to move up or to another employer. 

Doing this kind of research is important for those of you pursuing college credits as well. Take some time to talk to your professors about what kinds of jobs their students usually land and how to prepare. Ask them for names and contact info for some of their favorite former students. Look for internships that pay something, however modest, but more importantly, give you a chance to learn skills and experience employer/employee work relationships. 

Good luck! Don’t be discouraged. Looking for a job is a job. You’ll get better at it the more you try. And for a good book on thinking about your work and career, read or listen to an audio version of Richard Bolles “What Color is Your Parachute? A Practical Guide for Job-Hunters and Career-Changers” (

Read more:

Elise Gould, Julia Wolfe, and Zane Mokhiber. Class of 2019: High school edition.

Ann Markusen, “Exploring the Quality of Work.”


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