Advice for Graduates: From the Wisest Americans

We looked over our surveys of over 1200 of the oldest Americans, to see what advice they would offer new graduates hitting the job market. This month’s grads hit one of the worst job market in 100 years – so why not ask the advice of those folks who started looking for work in the worst job market (in the aftermath of the Great Depression)? Journalist Catey Hill summed up the advice nicely for the new website Next Avenue.

Here are the wisest Americans’ five lessons for having a fulfilling career and advice from experts on how to implement them effectively:

1. Say “yes”: This was the biggest message Pillemer heard over and over again. “People who passed up promotions, or opportunities to do things like work abroad, or who didn’t apply for a job because they thought they were underqualified said that not saying “yes” was their No. 1 career regret,” notes Pillemer. 

For Boomers with grown children, it may be easier than ever to say “yes.” Lower expenses may make it easier to finally take a chance on a less lucrative career or to move to another city for work, if necessary.

“Often there are a lot more opportunities to say ‘yes’ once the kids are out of the house,” says Lisa Adams, founder of the career-transition firm Fresh Air Careers. “You can finally take a chance on a less lucrative career or something you’ve really wanted to try.”

How to make it happen:  One obstacle people face in getting to “yes” is that they view a new job or opportunity as permanent, which makes them more risk averse, says Michael Jeans, president of New Directions, a career transition consulting firm. Instead, look at the offer as an adventure for the next two years or so.  

You may be tempted to say “no” because of a fear that you won’t like the new job – or that you won’t have the necessary skill set to be good at it. To combat this response, “do a 360-degree assessment of the opportunity,” says Lavie Margolin, a career coach whose firm is called Lion Cub Job Search. Ask the employer for details on what the job entails, then make a list of the positives and negatives, noting how well-aligned your interests and skills are to each job task, Margolin says. Once you’ve made this assessment, you can make a more informed decision and you might want to quickly bolster any skills you’re lacking.

2. Figure out what kind of job would make you happy – even if it means taking a pay cut: “This group overwhelmingly said that intrinsic rewards were much more important than financial ones,” Pillemer says.  

How to make it happen: Take a career personality test to figure out what kind of job might make you happy, Margolin says. This type of test, offered by many colleges and career-counseling centers, lets you assess your interests and skills then match them to potential careers.

It’s also important to make a list of the things that have made you happy (these could be hobbies, social interactions or work tasks) and create a list of jobs that could let you do them. Then “talk to people who do the job you think you want,” Jeans says. “Ask them what they do all day and what the challenges are in their jobs.” If possible, give the field you’re interested in a test drive, Margolin says. “Take an adult internship or volunteer with an organization where you can try to do what you want and see how you like it.”

3. Make the most of a bad job: Even if you’re toiling in a job you hate and feel you can’t leave it, do whatever you can to turn it into a learning experience. In his book, Pillemer says you should modify the Stephen Stills song lyric “And if you can’t be with the one you love, honey, love the one you’re with” to “And if you can’t have the job you love, honey, find something worthwhile about the one you’re in.”

How to make it happen: Identify the factors about the job that are making you the most unhappy, says career expert Julie Redfield, of PA Consulting Group. It might just be a single factor – like a long commute or disagreeable coworker – that could be easily remedied. Talk to your boss or the person contributing to your unhappiness to see if something could be done. Maybe you could work remotely a few days a week to avoid the commute. Or you could move desks to be farther away from the disagreeable co-worker.

If your boss is making you nuts, try to have a candid conversation with him or her. Don’t become accusatory or try to change the boss’ management style, but do see if the two of you can come up with ways to improve your working relationship.

If you can’t change what’s making you hate the job, try to gain new skills that will help you transition to a different job with the same employer, Jeans says. This could mean anything from helping out another department in your spare time to taking advantage of your employer’s college tuition reimbursement programs, he says.

4. Improve your people skills: You may be the most talented engineer or the most exacting architect, but you won’t get as far as you want without the ability to work well with people, Pillemer says. “Older Americans overwhelmingly said that emotional intelligence trumps every other type.” Getting along better with others at work will also make your job less stressful and more enjoyable.

How to make it happen: “Don’t just be an interesting person, be interested in other people,” Jeans says. To do this, ask people questions about how their day is going or offer to help them with projects. “You can start small,” Margolin says. “Tell yourself to ask one person one question about himself or herself per day.”

It’s also important to stay even-keeled and temper your criticism. “Before you speak, take 10 seconds to think about how what you’re going to say might impact the person, he says. “If you feel yourself ready to blow up, excuse yourself to take a bathroom break.” Similarly, before sending an email, reread it to make sure the tone isn’t accusatory or mean. You might even have a trusted coworker look over it.

5. Look for work with autonomy: “Career satisfaction has a lot more to do with how much autonomy and freedom you have than how much money you make,” Pillemer says. “You need the freedom to make your own decisions.”

How to make it happen: Find ways to get better at what you do at work. “If you excel at your job, your boss is most likely going to get off your back,” Jeans says. Try to get regular feedback from your boss, so you can then do what’s necessary to improve. You might also try to talk with a superior about establish approaches to work that might allow for less intervention – or at least reduce the need for it.

Certain careers – typically ones that are specialized and require more education – tend to be more autonomous, Margolin says. If you have a job like psychologist, social worker, counselor, financial adviser or graphic designer, you’re the expert, so people don’t meddle as much.

Your years of experience can help you sculpt an autonomous job by leveraging your experience into a consulting gig. Tap your professional network via LinkedIn or flip through those business cards to get started) or check out the Small Business Administration’s start-up guide online.

Next Avenue: 5 Career Lessons From the Wisest Americans

Want to Avoid Regret? Stay Out of Debt!

The news tells us that Americans are finallly getting more cautious about getting into debt. Our elders, many of whom lived through the Great Depression, think it’s about time! One of their strongest lessons is to save up the money before you buy something – or your may regret it.

Here’s what some of the elders interviewed for 30 Lessons for Living told me:

What should young people avoid? Credit card debt. They’ve got to have the instant gratification thing. I struggle with my granddaughter about it all the time because she doesn’t have the patience. She’ll get way in debt for something she’s gotta have and I keep saying: “You’re not ready for this, you don’t have a good down payment.” And also, I want her to have a cushion because sometimes it takes a while in between jobs, and she’s just not prepared to do that. She’s just like; “Well I know I’m going to have this job always.” Well, my first husband; in ten years of marriage, he had thirteen different jobs. And we had three small children and it was very nerve-wracking. (Evette, 83)

One of the things that I would tell any young person was save a little money every week for yourself. Make sure those few dollars a week are put away because that compounds and at the end of fifty years you’re going to have a nice nest egg if you pay yourself first. We have granddaughters that are paying off student loans that are just out of sight. They both worked as waitresses and if they had put aside a few dollars a week for themselves, they might not be struggling so much. (Pru, 75)

Unfortunately, I never had the money to save when I was in my twenties. That’s what I say to my kids now. I say that I wish I could have started saving when I was their age, when they’re in their twenties and like that. If you’ve saved money, like I stress that younger people should do, and then you can really relax when you get older and retire and enjoy life and like that. And think about having your house all paid for, and sit back and enjoy your hobbies and do volunteer work when you get older, and enjoy your grandchildren and travel. But if you’ve saved money and like that, you can do that and not have to keep working. (Flora, 71).

Worth taking a look at before you pull out those credit cards!

People over Things

There is no one among the elders who does not prefer to be comfortable financially. What is clear from their lessons, however, is that they believe “enough is enough.” Time spent earning enough money is time reasonably well spent. Time earning an excess of money far beyond that required to meet one’s needs, however, is time wasted.

Very often, the elders pointed to a conflict between the pursuit of money and putting a priority on personal relationships. They stand firmly on the side of investing in relationships:

I have been poor, and I have been rich, but I feel best when I have a coterie of people who like and respect me for what I am, and not what I have. (Clinton, 67)

Surround yourself with people you love. It’s nice to have money and be able to live well, but loved ones are more important than possessions. (Malinda, 72)

Material things are useful, but good relationships with God and the people around you make life worth living. (Neil, 90)

Last but not least, money isn’t everything. Take time to have some fun in life. It’s not all dreary and dog-eat-dog. Stop and smell the roses. (Darren, 73)

Of all the elders who made this point, one in particular stuck with me, from Joshua, 74. He told me that it all comes down to making connections with and caring about others:

Well, who have you helped? What circles do you move in? Some people I’ve known, they never helped anybody. They were never in any circles – they lived their own life totally unto themselves. You know what? Nobody would go to their funerals. It would be as though they never passed by on earth. So if I stick my head in a hole and think of just myself, and I don’t try to do some good and get out and interact and use my braints to help people, then nobody will come to my funeral. And I’ll deserve it!

What You Don’t Have Can Teach You a Lot About Happiness

How can you be happy without a lot of material things? Families are dealing with that problem today.

The experts on the issue are older Americans, many of whom grew up in the Great Depression. Bonita, 92, tells about a childhood most of us can hardly imagine. Living on very little, Bonita, her family, and her friends found it possible to be very happy.

Here’s her story:

People now think they need so much to be happy. We were happy in my family, and just think of what we didn’t have!

To give you an idea of what we lived without, here are a few practical things that I have had to learn over my life:

• To use electric lights rather than kerosene lamps.

• To use electric stoves and later a microwave oven instead of a wood stove.

• To use an electric washing machine instead off a scrub board, boiler on the stove, and three galvanized wash tubs.

• To use an electric clothes dryer instead of hanging the clothes on the line outside.

• To have a faucet in the kitchen rather than getting water by the pail-full from a spring in the meadow a fourth of a mile away.

• To have an indoor bathroom rather than taking a bath in the wash tub in front of a kitchen wood stove.

• To have toilet paper rather than an old Sears and Roebuck catalog.

• To use an indoor toilet rather than the privy behind the house.

• To live in a home with an electric iron rather than a sad iron heated on the stove.

• To listen to a TV rather than a Victrola.

• To answer the telephone when it rings rather than having to check out the special ring on a party line.

• To use frozen and prepared foods from the store rather than baking bread and eating garden and home canned foods.

• To buy ready-made clothes in a store instead of those made by a dressmaker who came to our house.

There are so many things people take for granted today, that we didn’t have. For example, life without a bathroom is hard to describe. One has to live it to know what it is like. Our bathing in those days was done in a basin of water that we carried to our bedrooms. In the winter, this meant trying to undress as near as possible to the stovepipe which added a bit of heat to the bedroom. During the winter, Mother tried to see to it that we each had a bath of some sort once a week. In the morning we washed a bit in the kitchen.

Our toilet was a small shed about six feet square. They were always built with three holes so daily trips to the privy often meant that it could be a social affair. My other memory of this building is of the swarms of flies in the summer. They buzzed and hummed around beneath you and kept you company whenever nature called you to this place.

The other big job before running water was doing the family washing for ten people. It started on Sunday night when a big copper wash boiler had to be filled with water from the spring up in the meadow. This would bring the water up to the room temperature during the night. Then Mother would heat the water to boiling on the wood stove. All the white clothes were boiled first and then washed. It was supposed to be more sanitary to boil the sheets and underwear. Then the hot clothes were removed with a “clothes stick”- a long bleached pole- and carried by the pail-full to the back wash room where we had three galvanized tubs on a large bench. In one tub, we rubbed the clothes on a wash board with Fels Naptha Soap. We rinsed the clothes in the second tub and then put them thru bluing water which seemed to counteract the yellowish color that the clothes often had.

The four older girls all took turns at the wash board in 15 minute shifts. The clothes were put through a hand wringer that had two rubber rollers and squeezed out some of the water. The clothes were then hung outside on a clothes line in the side yard or on the porch in the winter. I can see the long underwear during the winter as it froze stiff almost as soon as it was put on the line. Later in the day we had to bring the clothes back into the house and thaw them out and finished drying them on racks by the wood stove. The clothes really did smell sweet and clean after being out in the fresh air. Mother’s hands were always cold and sore as she went out on those cold winter days to hang out the clothes. Often she would heat the wooden clothes pins in the oven so that they would warm her hands for a few minutes.

Ironing was started on Tuesday and often took all week to do. Flat irons called “sad irons” were heated on the stove and then wiped on a cloth containing paraffin. I think this was to wipe off any smoke from the stove and to make the irons slide easier. We had both irons with handles fastened to the iron and detachable handles which we preferred. As the iron cooled off it had to go back on the stove and we’d try to find a hotter one to use. In those days we always ironed the sheets and pillowcases, and usually had two tablecloths along with everyone’s personal clothes. It was a really big job.

This house was lighted with kerosene lamps. They were smoky and smelly. On Saturday we had to collect all of them and wash the chimneys, rinse them and dry them. The wicks had to be trimmed. The base of the lamp was filled with kerosene and then the lamps were each returned to the rooms where they belonged. The light that they produced was not very good.

The lamp was usually placed in the middle of our large dining room table and at night we all sat around it to do our homework. The older members of the family checked on the younger ones to see that pages of addition were completed and correct or that we had memorized our spelling words for the next day. We practiced our reading assignments by reading to some older member of the family from our reading books. Our teachers wanted each of us to memorize a short poem each week and we were expected to recite it in front of the class during a Friday afternoon assembly. “October’s Bright Blue Weather” and “Robert Reese” were two of my favorites.

With no television or record players, we had to make our own fun and entertainment. When we were through working on our school work for the next day, we often played games. We had checkers, dominoes, caroms, and card games like flinch, authors, concentration, and spit. Sometimes we played hide the thimble or spin the platter. We loved to play dress-up in the old clothes that were sent to us from relatives in California or the Lessells family in New York. We had names like Mrs. Colburn and Mrs. Osborn and would talk to each other at great length about our children, our husbands, and our lives while dressed in long black skirts, fancy lace blouses, and pretty old evening dresses form our relatives who were a bit better off than our family financially.