As Ryan Bingham from "Up in the Air" would suggest, we are all living with an imaginary bag strapped to our backs, bursting at the seams with our burdens and responsibilities. And as a recent survey from U.C.L.A. would suggest, the weight of that bag is starting to tear through our ever-so-delicate shoulders.
The published findings, titled "The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2010," identify this year’s crop of college freshmen as having the lowest level of emotional health in the 25-year history of the survey. Only 52 percent of a sample that included over 200,000 first-year full-time students at four-year colleges reported their emotional health was "above average," and those same students indicated that the emotional health gap between male and female students is widening; girls are continuing to push ahead in the race toward academic misery.
As astonishing as these findings are for college freshmen alone, this data could easily be recognized as a representation of the overall emotional well-being for all traditional students—a group that varies by just a few years and a few important lessons but generally holds one important constant: a lack of real-world experience.
So what’s weighing our sack of turmoil down more than ever? The answer is not entirely clear, but economic concerns are being tagged as an early scapegoat—a popular choice nowadays.
Brian Van Brunt, president of the American College Counseling Association, was quoted in The New York Times on Jan. 26, in an article regarding the same survey about the economic anxiety issues faced by American students.
"More students are arriving on campus with problems, needing support, and today’s economic factors are putting a lot of extra stress on college students," Brunt told The New York Times. "They look at their loans and wonder if there will be a career waiting for them on the other side."
A conservative hiring market, a luxury car’s worth of debt and dismal unemployment figures are, along with a number of other factors, collectively amounting in a figurative back strain on the average student. Here are a few fun numbers to discuss with the anecdotal chiropractor, provided by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics: the latest civilian unemployment rate, from Dec. 1, is 9.4 percent and has been above 9 percent since May 2009—that number looks a lot better with a four or a five before the decimal; and the median duration of unemployment is up to 22.4 weeks, maintaining a trend of 20 weeks or above that started in March of last year—that stat was sitting at a cool 5.8 at the turn of the century.
Desolate and ill-begotten career forecasts don’t have to necessitate a bleak and dreary attitude for college students, nor does it have to present itself as an overbearing ore of uranium, the heaviest naturally occurring element, precipitously collapsing through the bottom of our intuitive backpacks. Instead, these challenges could be viewed as motivation to excel as an undergraduate and to prepare for the future as efficiently as possible; if we fear the limited potential the future holds for success, then we should do everything we possibly can to distinguish ourselves in the fight for financial prosperity. Otherwise, our contemptuous shivering in the face of tomorrow’s frigid prospects will deliver a blizzard of stoic failures, mounted with sacks the size of U-Haul trucks.
"It is clear that those who graduate from college with better skills do better in the job market after graduation," said Bill Goffe, professor of economics at Oswego State. "It seems that some students don’t work that much on acquiring these skills…I’m not sure that all students have a good sense of the skills that employers are looking for."
In the findings of a survey released in 2008 by The Association of American Colleges and Universities, college graduates received discouraging grades from employers on the basis of preparedness. The data shows that students score highest in social skills, peaking on the one-to-10 scale with a 7.0 mean rating in teamwork, and lowest in categories that seem to highlight academically acquired knowledge. For each of the following categories, employers suggested that at least 30 percent of graduates were below average: ability to adapt, ability to demonstrate critical thinking attributes, ability to write, ability to display self-direction and the ability to present an understanding of global knowledge.
With troubling employment figures lingering beyond upcoming graduation dates, it seems imperative that students develop these skills as proficiently as possible prior to graduation. Perhaps an increased focus on aptitude development will distract students from heeding the woeful news of the economy, and, in effect, allow them to reduce the load they carry.
Goffe’s advice for students included increasing the amount of "high-quality study hours," which could reduce exam-driven stress, and to be proactive in the search for a career—both through personal exploration and with the aid of campus-based services. He added that the future, surprisingly, holds promising signs.
"Each generation of Americans has led demonstrably better lives than their parents," said Goffe. "It would be very surprising if this came to pass…The short-term future is pretty challenging, but the long-term future looks pretty good."
This view correlates with an analysis of reality provided by Tyler Cowen, professor of economics at George Mason University, in his article featured in the January-February edition of The American Interest.
"Bill Gates is much, much richer than I am, yet it is not obvious that he is much happier if, indeed, he is happier at all," wrote Cowen. "By broad historical standards, what I share with Bill Gates is far more significant than what I don’t share with him."
Cowen’s self-comparison with the wealthiest man in America, depending on which day you access that information, illustrates an amazing point that is far too easy to overlook: the luxuries that were once only affordable by the incredibly affluent and elite are now available to every member of society.
"I have access to penicillin, air travel, good cheap food, the Internet and virtually all of the technical innovations that Gates does," Cowen explained. "To be sure, Gates receives the very best care from the world’s top doctors, but our health outcomes are in the same ballpark."
The list of benefits that are now seemingly mandatory necessities for every person are much more than just bills adding to the weight of the duffel, now fastened and secured with steel bolts to each individual rib; they are scraps of evidence proving that our world is always improving, and that trend is far too entrenched in history to believe the opposite will forcefully strike us. The increasing cost of life shouldn’t bewilder and disappoint us with its complications; it should, instead, illustrate how amazingly simple we’ve made the idea of existence.
Tomorrow, and the state of the economy it presents, should not push us into a state of panic or disillusionment; we shouldn’t fret today because tomorrow is difficult; and we can’t sit idly as the potential lessons of life pass us by. Take Ryan Bingham’s advice to the newly unemployed, which we will inevitably join once we graduate: "Anybody who ever built an empire, or changed the world, sat where you are now. And it’s because they sat there that they were able to do it." Let’s stop worrying and let’s start changing the world.