Outlook is More Important than Economics

A reader in Ocean View writes that her 22-year-old son graduated from college in May and has returned home to live. She loves having him there, but she also realizes that he needs to get on with his life. He can’t find a job, and his spirits are sinking. He was even turned down for menial work at a local restaurant because someone else had more experience. She’s worried that he doesn’t know what the next step should be. He rejects the idea of therapy or counseling, and she asks how he’s supposed to handle this economy. 

The first rule of job hunting or career development is ‘ location! The reality is that there are just not that many job opportunities in a small resort town, especially for a college graduate. Your son’s first big mistake is becoming depressed about something over which he has no control. Other mistakes and bad moods will surely flow from that.

We’re not supposed to say it any more, but I’ll say it anyway because it’s true: Human beings sometimes feel sorry for themselves. ‘Poor me. I can’t find a job.’ Now don’t get me wrong. I’m the first to be outraged over what our government is doing to systematically wreck the private economy. But this isn’t the place for that discussion. We have no choice but to deal with reality as we find it, and your son is no exception.

We can’t blame it all on ‘the economy,’ either. Yes, ten percent of working-age people are still unemployed, but the other ninety percent are finding a way to at least eke out some kind of living. Your son is young, able-minded and armed with a college degree. He doesn’t yet have a mortgage or any major financial commitments. He also has choices. He doesn’t have to stay with you just because he’s unemployed. He probably feels, ‘What else can I do? I don’t have a job. I can’t buy a car. I can’t pay rent.’ Of course, he is perfectly willing to live at his parents’ house. If he’s willing to do that, then why isn’t he willing to search for a job in another city? Once he finds something, he can ask you for some help until he gets settled in. Now THAT’S ‘getting on with his life.’ I won’t speak for you, but if you’re willing to let him live with you rent-free, I’m sure you’re willing to advance him a couple months’ rent to help him get started. If he’s willing to put in the effort, then what’s the problem? Unless he’s feeling sorry for himself and making excuses.

If your son came to me for life coaching, I wouldn’t ‘yell’ at him, but I wouldn’t let him get away with what psychotherapists sometimes call ‘stinkin’ thinkin”. I would challenge him to think in a different way. I’d make him do the work; starting by having him write down, in my presence, the advantages he has. I’d make him think of as many as possible (none the least of which the fact that he’s young, healthy, has a college degree, and can select any city in the country in which to live). The recession might even be an advantage. In economic boom times, he might default to the obvious choice, for example, just living and working in the town where he went to college. But in a recession you’re forced to think ‘out of the box’ and go where the jobs are. Who’s to say he might not find a new and interesting place that he might actually enjoy?

The worst thing your son can do (and I fear he’s doing it) is to sit home and succumb to low expectations. You’re right to suggest counseling or a life coach (hopefully he won’t hire one who plays into his self-pity), because sometimes a person will listen to an outsider better than a family member. Though he may be feeling sorry for himself, he may also be embarrassed to be living off his parents. If that’s the case, then I admire him for feeling that way. That shows he has pride and doesn’t feel ‘entitled’ (unfortunately, a very popular feeling nowadays). He needs to be reassured that there’s no moral shame in being stuck, as long as he strives to think his way out of it.

I won’t presume to minimize the reality of an economic downturn that’s getting worse by the day. On its current course, it will eventually affect all of us. But moods and outlook are even more fundamental than economics. Societies don’t get out of their economic slumps unless (and until) they first lift their spirits. What applies to societies also applies to your son. Keep encouraging him to get some help at helping himself.