Christine Cruzvergara used to sit in her office — decorated with a plaque that read, “Allergic to mediocrity” — and dole out advice about ambition.
Ms. Cruzvergara ran the campus career service centers at George Mason University and later at Wellesley College, a campus whose competitive culture was reflected in the way students approached their job searches. When they talked about openings that seemed to check various boxes — purpose, prestige, paycheck — she heard a common refrain: “This is my dream job.”
Now, as the head of education strategy for Handshake, a networking platform serving more than 10 million college students, Ms. Cruzvergara is watching that sentiment shift. Handshake surveyed about 1,400 recent college graduates and current seniors to ask about their top job search priority: 73 percent said stability. Fewer than half, by comparison, said a priority was to work for a known brand.
“In the past, students were often looking for location, they were looking for brand name,” Ms. Cruzvergara said. Today, “there’s a practicality to how people are looking at their job search.”
If stability is what young workers are after, the job market is in a prime position to comply. So far this year, it has been unquestionably strong. The unemployment rate is at nearly a five-decade low. There are more openings across industries than there were before the pandemic. Layoffs across the economy were at 1.4 million in October, or 0.9 percent of employment, which is low by historical standards and the exact same rate it was one year earlier.
But some young people are anxious nonetheless. For the nearly two-thirds of young American adults who didn’t graduate from college, job insecurities are sharpened by inflation, at a 40-year high. Others, who did go to college, are entering their careers after years of school disruptions and rising levels of mental distress. And for the very small subset who graduated from college and planned to seek out especially high-paying, perk-filled jobs, like those in technology, there’s the angst of witnessing layoffs across the companies associated with the most alluring roles.
All that has sapped at the optimism of some young job seekers. Job-seeker confidence declined in October, according to ZipRecruiter. Nearly half of current college seniors reported expanding their job searches because of economic anxiety.
“Lately, with a lot of people being let go from their jobs, it’s opened my eyes to look for a job where I can feel more stable,” said Giana Gaitan-Naranjo, 21, a senior at San Francisco State University. “If a company has some boxes ticked, I’d feel happy working for them for a bit.”
Ms. Gaitan-Naranjo is applying to most design jobs she can find that pay more than $19 an hour. There’s relief just in visualizing herself done with school, all those jammed weeks of classes and 20 hours of restaurant shifts. She wants to know that she won’t be reliant on financial support from her parents, a housekeeper and a landscaper.
In conversations with more than a dozen young job seekers, many said years of uncertainty and upheaval had left them feeling that they should freeze or delay the search for a dream job and focus on finding a secure one.
The share of job seekers of all ages who said security was one of their top priorities rose to 37 percent in October, from 31 percent in January, according to ZipRecruiter. One young woman said she was applying only to jobs with salary ranges listed so she could feel confident about making ends meet as prices climbed. Another switched to marketing from sports entertainment, worried about future opportunities in her field given the pandemic’s effects.
When Tiffany Dyba, a recruiter in New York City, reached out to young people about job openings, she said, they used to respond with a list of questions: Were there free lunches? What about happy hours on Fridays with kegs in the office? Gallup polling tended to find that older workers valued an employer’s financial stability more than younger ones, who value diversity and transparency.
“Now people are like, ‘Is this job remote?’ And ‘I need to know the compensation right now,’” Ms. Dyba said. “It’s not about the dream job anymore.”
It’s unsettling for some young people to see employers long associated with free-flowing perks and eye-popping salaries make their largest-ever job cuts. Meta laid off more than 11,000 employees last month. Amazon laid off roughly 10,000 people in corporate and technology roles. Twitter laid off over 3,000 people. Meta once offered laundry services to its employees. Twitter, until recently, had free lunch.
“It’s a reality check for most people,” said Rachael Noble, 27, who was laid off from her position at a tech start-up in August and is now looking for a new role from her home in San Diego. “It’s recalibrating your mental model on how to approach job hunting. There can be growing pains.”
The first job market that someone enters is significant. Those first 10 years of work typically shape a person’s lifetime earning potential, with the bulk of earning growth happening early on, according to research from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
In a survey this year of some 20,000 workers, from Bain & Company, 61 percent of those under 35 said they were concerned about finances, job security and their ability to meet career goals, compared with 40 percent of those 35 and older. And some of those young people are struggling to balance a hunger for certainty, and solid ground, with the feeling that they don’t want to settle.
“There have been a lot of painful disruptions,” said Jeffrey Arnett, a developmental psychologist who coined the term “emerging adulthood,” noting that the 20s are a sensitive age. “It’s already difficult to make your way into the job market at any time.”
Alexis Carr, 23, was the first person in her family to graduate from college, and when she got in she couldn’t wait to set up a life far from her childhood bedroom in Austin, Texas, with the yellow walls. But when Covid swept through campus, she ended up cut off from friends, studying for exams in random corners of the house where her brother hadn’t set up his own books. She started getting chest tightness, which turned out to be panic attacks.
Now Ms. Carr is looking for her first full-time job, focusing on mental health nonprofits, and saving up by working as a server at an Italian restaurant, where her customers sometimes leave notes commenting on her sweetness. She keeps trying to remind herself that the bitterness and angst of the last few years aren’t going to define the rest of her career.
“I’m just getting started,” she said. “I’ve never lived outside of home. I’ve never lived alone. I’m just now breaking the seal.”
Career coaches are doing their best to guide the young adults who feel unmoored. Some are advising a shift from five-year professional plans to two- or three-year plans, recognizing the tumultuous effects of the pandemic on nearly every industry. Others are focusing their conversations with job candidates on critical benefits, like health care plans and 401(k) plans, instead of the luxe perks once discussed, such as foosball and kombucha.
And pandemic-induced stress is prompting some young people to expand their job searches beyond the handful of openings that seem exactly matched to their career aspirations.
Laura Yin, who graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 2020 as a mechanical engineer, was less picky during her search than she had anticipated, given all the uncertainty surrounding her pandemic life. Even her salary standard dropped.
“It was like, ‘I don’t know if I really want to work for a wastewater plant, but they have a job opening,’” she said.
Resetting expectations was painful. Ms. Yin, who worked as an industrial maintenance mechanic before college, had already lost out on the graduation festivities that she had planned with her parents and partner.
“I’m not a big fan of large crowds,” she said. “But once the pandemic hit and everything started shutting down, and they were like, ‘We’re not going to have a ceremony — you can watch it on your computer at home,’ I was like, ‘Oh, I didn’t even realize I did want that.’”
Handshake reported that over one-third of students graduating in 2023 were open to industries they hadn’t previously considered, because of anxiety about the economy, and that one-fifth were starting their searches earlier.
Caught between hope and unsteadiness, many are wrestling with what they want from the years to come.
Shasparay Irvin, 25, saw the pandemic derail her final semester at the University of Wisconsin. She “graduated into a void,” accepting her diploma in the mail. She knew she wanted to work in the performing arts, so she took a job teaching theater to elementary school students on video, calling out “Stage right!” and “Stage left!” to rows of heads floating on Zoom.
Then she quit, feeling frustrated by the work. Ms. Irvin is now in a one-year master’s program, performing in slam poetry shows and researching jobs in arts administration.
“I graduated at the worst time to graduate,” she said. “Now I’m reframing to say, ‘What do I want to spend the time I have doing?’”