Counseling Today, Features

Next stop, adulthood

Angela Kennedy July 14, 2008

They are the masters of multitasking. They can walk, talk, listen, type and text, all the while sipping $5 designer coffee and updating their MySpace profiles. They are beyond overachievers and often speak multiple languages. They fully expect to find their dream job the day after graduating college and plan to be CEO by next Friday. According to two American Counseling Association members, these young adults are ambitious, confidant and tech savvy, yet secretly terrified and confused by the idea of being self-sufficient, responsible adults. Say hello to the millennials — the next generation transitioning into adulthood and making its presence felt in the American workforce.

Camille Helkowski and Jake Livengood first teamed up as colleagues in the Career Development Center at Loyola University in Chicago. They often discussed the struggles of the millennial generation — those born in the early 1980s through late 1990s — and how to help these young people with transitions after college life. Helkowski, the associate director of the Loyola career center who also maintains a private mental health practice, and Livengood, a doctoral student in higher education leadership at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, are sharing tips on how to cope with this transition with their students and, in some cases, the students’ parents. The two also presented on the special challenges of counseling millennials at the ACA Conference in Hawaii in March.

Helkowski and Livengood believe it is important for counselors to understand some of the general characteristics of this generation so they can help millennials learn to help themselves — something with which many of these students aren’t necessarily familiar. Livengood suggests that the difference between millennials and the previous generation, gen X, lies with the parents. The parenting skills and styles employed with these generations were almost polar opposites.

Many parents of gen Xers were at least partially absent, either because of divorce or because both parents felt it necessary to work to support the household. This was the generation of latchkey kids who learned many of life’s lessons from 1980s sitcoms and after-school specials. Additionally, Livengood says, the general parenting style used on this generation was more laid back, and parents tended to encourage independence and creativity.

On the other hand, he says, parents of millennials tended to be immersed in their children’s lives to the point of becoming overprotective and sheltering. “When growing up, these parents tended to avoid any sort of ’failure’ (for their children) in an effort to treat every child as a ’special’ child,” Livengood says. “I think those from the millennial generation have not had the practice to stand on their own and experience the value of learning from setbacks and not succeeding. All-or-nothing thinking comes into play with this situation. Millennials tend to have a view of life as either all a success or all a failure, which is very counterproductive. In reality, learning from mistakes and setbacks can provide opportunities for tremendous growth and insight.”

As the time to graduate approaches, many of these students will feel, for the first time in their lives, great uncertainty about what comes next or great disappointment that their master plan isn’t matching up well with reality, Livengood explains. “In our career and life planning classes at Loyola, we really saw that there was an ongoing need to talk about these adjustments.”

The making of a millennial

“Most of the research talks about their sense of ’specialness,’ that they have been treated ’specially,’” Helkowski says. “Some of that is true. Certainly not for everyone, but we do see this expectation that things will be more individualized toward them. Somehow they are the exception to all of the rules. Each of them sees themselves as an exception, as well as exceptional, which is also often true. They are probably the best schooled. They have had lots of training, lots of coaches, and they were involved in lots of things.”

The two ACA members note that many parents of millennials started college funds while their children were still in utero. Helkowski says a typical millennial childhood was choreographed and scheduled to include multiple practices, lessons, recitals and camps. However, she says, these children grew accustomed to being rewarded just for showing up, not necessarily based on their accomplishments. They often had shelves full of trophies and participation ribbons but rarely experienced the thrill of being the best or the disappointment of losing to a better competitor.

In addition to seldom being allowed to face disappointment, the counselors say, many of these students never had to work. “One of the issues that this generation has is that they have been to Katmandu and scaled Mount Everest, but they have never had to ask, ’Do you want fries with that?’” Helkowski says. A minority of millennials have prior job experience, she notes, and many lack the basic knowledge of the workforce that teenagers from previous generations typically received with their first after-school job. Most members of the millennial generation did not spend their summers mowing grass or flipping burgers, she explains, because their mind-set was that working menial jobs wouldn’t get them into Yale, and Stanford didn’t care if they were the third key night manager at Old Navy. “While it’s true that Yale and other major universities are looking for these extraordinary items on a college application, not all of these kids will go to an Ivy League school,” Helkowski says. “But they will all have to work eventually.”

Livengood explains that this scenario likely happened, at least in part, because parents of millennials wanted to protect their children from experiencing some of the same struggles and challenges they had gone through, including tough times economically. “I believe that parents want the best for their children,” he says. “Throughout history, a college education has been viewed as a way to establish upward social mobility and increase stable financial prospects for the future. Parents of millennials certainly shared this view. In turn, a great pressure to succeed and prepare for college was seen early on in the development of millennial students. From middle school or earlier, some were placed in college preparation classes and were trying to prepare a well-rounded college application through volunteer work and involvement in activities.”

He notes that children of this generation felt a lot of pressure not only to perform, but also to prepare for their future. “You have eighth-graders taking AP (advanced placement) classes,” he says. “They didn’t have time to have plain old jobs and to experience those repetitive and sometimes mundane responsibilities.”

“There is a quote that we like to use in our presentations,” Helkowski adds. “It’s from a Middlebury College senior, and he said, ’I missed the part where I was supposed to grow up.’ I think that’s a common issue with this generation. We see a lot of students struggling with leaving school. They are terrified of being a grown-up. I’m a boomer, and we couldn’t wait to grow up. It’s really interesting to me to watch this generation come through with not a lot of interest in what being an adult has to offer.”

“Another thing is that this terror of being an adult isn’t something they share with one another,” Helkowski says. On the outside, millennials might look as though they have everything planned out and that all is well, but on the inside, she observes, they are panicking and feel very alone. “For a group of people who are so technologically connected, they are often individually quite isolated,” she says, pointing out that many millennials may have literally hundreds of online acquaintances, yet have a hard time finding a friend with whom to catch a movie or go out to dinner.

Helkowski believes that while a certain level of angst is typical for most young adults, millennials have some trouble precisely because they don’t see themselves as typical. “This struggle is a developmental challenge,” she says. “As counselors, we need to let them know that it’s normal to feel this way.”

“Sometimes, they see it as a letdown,” Livengood adds. “They have been preparing for college for so long and they expect a pretty big payoff afterward — professionally, financially and emotionally. And, sometimes, they are disappointed.” He notes that some members of this generation have a tough time accepting the concept of working their way up the corporate ladder because they are accustomed to instant gratification.

However, Livengood emphasizes,
although this generation presents some challenges, its members also have a lot to offer future employers. Among their positive characteristics, millennials are generally regarded as:

  • Very bright. They are extremely tech savvy.
  • Confident. They are self-assured and know their abilities.
  • Hopeful. They are described as optimistic, yet practical. They believe in the future and their role in it.
  • Eager. They welcome a challenge, especially in a work setting that is collaborative, creative, fun and financially rewarding.
  • Goal-oriented.
  • Civic-minded. They were taught to think in terms of the greater good. They have a high rate of volunteerism.
  • Inclusive. Millennials are used to being organized in teams and making certain no one is left behind.
  • Tolerant. They expect to earn a living in a workplace that is fair to all and where diversity and multiculturalism are encouraged and promoted.

Challenge + Support = Growth

Helkowski and Livengood have some suggestions for how counselors can help members of the millennial generation become better prepared not only for life after college but for life in general. “Developmentally, challenges are necessary, and these transitions can be difficult. That’s why we call them growing pains,” Helkowski says. “It’s not so much that counselors need to help them diminish their discomfort with these struggles but to help them see that there are reasons for it. It’s very much like what my Lamaze classes did for me when I was giving birth. It didn’t make it hurt any less, but it was helpful to know what to expect. That is what we are trying to do — to help them know what to expect and let them know it’s normal to be confused and not have a handle on your whole life. What doesn’t help is if they don’t do anything about those feelings.”

Among the suggestions Helkowski and Livengood provide for counselors working with millennials:

  • Create environments that support healthy exploration and risk.
  • Encourage mentorship (formal or informal).
  • Include developmental issues in assessment and treatment planning.
  • Avoid pathologizing transition issues.
  • Listen to student input.
  • Create or revise facilities to encourage community, interpersonal interaction and informality.
  • Employ use of technology while encouraging face-to-face interactions.
  • Acknowledge and prepare for increased anxiety about postgraduate transitions throughout college.

“The more slack you cut, the less good you are doing,” Helkowski says. “When we cut students slack and allow them to ignore the rules and the consequences, you are sending the message that these lessons don’t matter. Sometimes you have to have those firm boundaries. It’s our job as educators and counselors to help these students go through these developmental challenges, not avoiding the struggle but seeing why the struggle is important. We aren’t doing our job if we don’t hold them accountable.” It is through struggling that people form better coping skills and increase resiliency, she adds.

“That’s where the ’challenge plus support equals growth’ comes in,” Livengood says. “Sometimes people have been given their way throughout their life, and when they first experience boundaries, that can be a tough thing. ”

“It’s important to expose people to a broader world — to a world that lives in a way they don’t,” Helkowski says. “That’s where mentoring comes in. We still have an obligation at the college and university level to help students understand what they have seen and are experiencing. Put it into terms that may, in fact, help them form other ideas about the world and perhaps form the direction that their life takes.”

In addition to one-on-one counseling sessions with students, Livengood and Helkowski suggest that college counseling centers provide workshops and seminars not only on landing a first job but about what graduating students can expect when entering the workforce. “We’ve offered a full-day job search boot camp. It gets them hooked into the career center and let’s them know that there is still assistance for them as they move through these next steps,” Helkowski says.

She also addresses parents in orientation to make them aware of what to expect when their child goes off to college. “We look specifically at this generation and get the parents of this generation to let go a little,” she says. To illustrate why, she recalls the time the career center received a letter from a student’s parent asking for career assistance. “It was the parent who wrote it for their 23-year-old unemployed daughter,” Helkowski says. “That’s not, unfortunately, unusual these days. These parents take the reins from (their children) and then get angry that they aren’t doing (things) on their own.”

“It’s like the parents are their kids’ agent,” Livengood adds. “We have to encourage (students) to be more proactive in their own lives versus having other people stand up for them.”

“That’s the greatest wrong we can do to this generation,” Helkowski concludes. “To keep them forever kids and never let them think they can make their own decisions or make a mistake.”

Common struggles

Jake Livengood highlights five issues or lessons that new graduates commonly struggle with as they enter the world of working adults and offers suggestions for how counselors can help students prepare for this transition.

1. Success and failure is a continuum.

Counselors can share examples of times when they learned from a “failure” or life setback. Have students read about success stories in which individuals eventually triumphed despite setbacks. Help students identify previous times in their own lives when they learned from a setback. Assist students in recalling the expectations they had upon entering college and how those expectations were met or not met.

2. New workers have to pay their dues.

Counselors can educate students about reasonable starting salary levels via resources such as the Occupational Outlook Handbook , Salary.com and Indeed.com. Counselors can also help students become better aware of what the career ladder looks like in a given profession. Encourage students to pursue informational interviewing with professionals in the field.

3. Feeling isolated.

Recent graduates often feel isolated when adjusting to a more structured work schedule and being separated from college friends. Counselors can help normalize this transition, provide feedback about ways to become more connected with friends, list activities for self-care and assist in finding coping strategies to negotiate this change.

4. Being an adult is a process that is unique to the individual.

Counselors can help by providing opportunities for reflection and journaling. Young adults tend to compare their situations and experiences with those of others. Counselors can help young adults identify these thoughts and reflect on how that approach is affecting their experience.

5. Lack of comfort with formality and financial management.

Counselors don’t have to be etiquette experts or financial planners to help with these areas. Counselors can be of assistance by providing basic budgeting activities for students and young adults, information about choices in health insurance and retirement planning, and resources for handling more formal situations at work.

Angela Kennedy is a senior writer at Counseling Today. Contact her at akennedy@counseling.org.Letters to the editor:
ct@counseling.org