How the Wimpy Class of 2014 Can Get and Keep Jobs
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The Fiscal Times
April 4, 2014

With waves of American college graduates about to hit the job market, it’s a good bet most of them don’t think of the controversial conservative author, Charles Murray, as their mentor.

The W. H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of several books – including Coming Apart (about divided white America) and The Bell Curve (with Richard Herrnstein) – is hardly known as a warm and fuzzy job counselor. 

Yet, in The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead, a new primer for workplace newbies, Murray dispenses some of the best advice today’s overly coddled millennial grads haven’t yet heard.

Related: The Surprising Reason College Grads Can’t Get a Job

“Bad bosses tend to be great at what they do. Before you decide you’re in an intolerable situation, look deep into your soul and ask if you’re being victimized – or if you’re a self-absorbed naif.” And, “The profession of politics as it’s now practiced is not something that a person who loves rigor, and a person who doesn’t want to suck up, would ever want to get into. That’s a pretty damning statement about public service.” And, “Do you use the word ‘like’ as a verbal tic? I mean, like, do you insert it in, like, random points in your, like, spoken conversation? STOP IT.”

The Fiscal Times spoke with Murray to get more of his thoughts about how new college grads should prepare for the work force – and how colleges have left our kids unprepared for what lies ahead. Here are excerpts:   

The Fiscal Times (TFT): You say earlier generations understood the idea of being subordinate in a first job, whereas today’s graduates don’t. Why?

Charles Murray (CM): Young people today need to walk into the workplace understanding that they’re subordinate. Their boss has no resemblance whatsoever to a parent or to a counselor. New workers have to know they’re being paid a salary to do the things they’re told to do by the boss. If they walk in with that mindset, it makes it a lot easier for them to learn from others around them. Many young people right out of college have an inflated sense of their own wonderfulness and it will not help them.  

Related: The College Failure That Costs Taxpayers $12B a Year

TFT: We can’t talk about new graduates and jobs without talking about what goes on at our colleges and universities. Is there a certain amount of coddling that goes on at college today and is that at fault here?

CM: I think that college today has abandoned several of its central roles. College used to be, very self-consciously, a bridge between adolescence and adulthood, so that when you went to college, your teachers were no longer like your high school teachers. They were a more distant and more formidable set of people. Not only did you call them ‘professor,’ but when a college paper was due at noon on a Tuesday and you slipped it under the door at 1, you would get it back saying your paper was late and not accepted.

It used to be quite clear in college that you were on your own, making your own decisions, and taking responsibility for the consequences of those decisions. Now, in college, all those aspects and all the relationships between the teacher and the student have been done away with, in most cases. Now, you’re on a first-name basis with your professors. Now, if your paper is late, it’s not a problem. Now, if you’re given a B on something, your proper reaction isn’t, ‘Oh, I need to work harder.’ It’s – ‘I need to go into to the professor’s office and complain bitterly that I’ve been unjustly treated.’ 

Then you’ve got these large residential staffs at colleges today whose job it is to baby you through all the trials and tribulations of college life. I think essentially college has become a systematic way of extending adolescence, and that’s one of the reasons – a primary reason – that you have new graduates who have no sense of how much they need to learn.

Related: The New SATs and the Great Delusion of Excellence

TFT:  Do you think this will change any time soon?

CM:  It’s a great question to ponder. In other words, to what extent are we at the end of a cultural period and heading toward a new one? I think an awful lot of people are fed up with a lot of these cultural phenomena. A lot of people are fed up with the way colleges have become mushy and way too expensive and they don’t prepare kids for anything. A lot of people are responding to the idea that strict standards are good, high expectations are good. But of course, my crystal ball is no clearer than yours.

TFT: What if your target audience of new college grads and their parents don’t have a clue who you are? Why should they listen to your job advice?

CM: I would like to think that my advice will appeal to a lot of people who have never heard of Charles Murray. It’s certainly not limited to people on one side of the political spectrum. There’s nothing political about my tips at all.

TFT: You don’t mince words: You’re blunt about bucking up, taking responsibility, speaking correctly, growing up. What’s behind your approach?   

CM: I think people are hungry for straight talk in all realms of life. Why is a guy like Chris Christie so popular in many ways? You listen to him and you don’t have the sense he’s crafting a message to be polite or to ingratiate himself. It’s refreshing. And I think that by saying, ‘Hey, I’m a curmudgeon’ – you can say almost anything and don’t have to dance around things. It’s liberating.

Related: Millennials’ Joblessness Costs the Government $8.9B a Year

TFT: As part of all this straight talk, you urge, ‘Learn to love rigor.’ Why? 

CM: It goes to the notion of being happy with one’s work. In my own experience, I’ve been happy when I’ve been engaged in my work and so were others in the organization, especially my superiors. We were engaged in something that we thought was important and worth doing well. That is vital to the quality of a workplace. Being around other people who love rigor is fun.

I say learn to love rigor not just because it has pragmatic value for you in producing better work – but because any vocation pursued at a high level of excellence involves rigor. I don’t care if that’s working at the American Enterprise Institute or making shoes. In both cases there’s a high level of rigor that goes into doing what you’re doing.

TFT: Is that true of our political system as well? The American people right now are hugely unhappy with Congress and with dysfunction and corruption in general. 

CM: I know that most of the advice in my book may not apply to the entertainment industry or to the tech world – but in politics, certainly, sucking up is part of the job description, as opposed to how good your work has been. In the political world, you will get ahead based on who you know and how well you suck up. In all sorts of ways, the profession of politics as it is now practiced is not something that a person who loves rigor, and a person who doesn’t want to suck up, would ever want to get into. That’s a pretty damning statement about public service.

Related: One Terrible Boss, 10 Great Workplace Tips

TFT: One key lesson for most new employees in the workforce, you say, is that their bosses aren’t their buddies. Explain.

CM: The people you really learn from at work are those who are good at what they do. Almost no great bosses are warm and cuddly and your best buddy. Understanding that fact is critical for today’s college graduates. One of the biggest things about today’s generation of affluent upper middle class college graduates is that it’s unlikely they’ve ever held a real job before. That’s a big difference from the graduates of earlier generations, where holding jobs from the time they were old enough to deliver newspapers and babysit was normal. By the time they took a job after college, they had held half-a-dozen jobs in real workplaces during the summers, when they had to respond to things that had to get done.   

TFT: Will you gaze into your crystal ball and render an expectation for the fall midterms?

CM: I have avoided reading about daily politics for years and years, and there’s a reason. It depresses me.

More Murray Tips for Getting Ahead in 2014: 

  • Work long hours, not just for the sake of being there but to accomplish useful work without having to be asked. You will stand out. 
  • Use good manners. Think of others. Lose the it’s-all-about-me syndrome. 
  • Achieve excellence as a writer. Work hard at this. It will be noticed.
  • Ask questions of those who know more than you do. Listen to their answers. 
  • Be honest.
  • Show up. 

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Managing Editor Maureen Mackey oversees scheduling and work flow and also writes and edits features and reports on a wide array of subjects. She spent more than 20 years as a senior book and features editor at Reader’s Digest.