Education and Work in Early Adulthood

Diana Lang; Nick Cone; Margaret Clark-Plaskie; Laura Overstreet; Martha Lally; and Suzanne Valentine-French

Education in Early Adulthood

A concern over the past decade has been, “Does formal education prepare young adults for the workplace?” It appears that students need to learn “soft skills,” as well as the particular knowledge and skills within their college major. As education researcher Pazich[1] noted, most American college students today are enrolling in business or other pre-professional programs and to be effective and successful workers and leaders, they would benefit from the communication, teamwork, and critical thinking skills, as well as the content knowledge, gained from liberal arts education. In fact, two-thirds of children starting primary school now will be employed in jobs in the future that currently do not exist. Therefore, students cannot learn every single skill or fact that they may need to know, but they can learn how to learn, think, research, and communicate well so that they are prepared to continually learn new things and adapt effectively in their careers and lives since the economy, technology, and global markets will continue to evolve.[2] In sum, workers need skills in listening, reading, writing, speaking, global awareness, critical thinking, civility, and computer literacy—all skills that enhance success in the workplace.

Career Choices in Early Adulthood

Photo of construction employees loading window panes into the back of a truck.
Additional education helps individuals learn job skills and develop soft skills to prepare them for the workplace. There are many career paths that do not necessitate a college degree. (Image Source: PxFuel)

Hopefully, we are each becoming lifelong learners, particularly since we are living longer and will most likely change jobs multiple times during our lives. However, for many, our job changes will be within the same general occupational field, so our initial career choice is still significant. We’ve seen with Erikson that identity largely involves occupation.

One of the most well-known theories about career choice is from Holland,[3] who proposed that there are six personality types (realistic, investigative, artistic, social, enterprising, and conventional), as well as varying types of work environments. The better matched one’s personality is to the workplace characteristics, the more satisfied and successful one is predicted to be with that career or vocational choice. Research support has been mixed and we should note that there is more to satisfaction and success in a career than one’s personality traits or likes and dislikes. For instance, education, training, and abilities need to match the expectations and demands of the job, plus the state of the economy, availability of positions, and salary rates may play practical roles in choices about work.

Link to Learning: What’s your right career?

To complete a free online career questionnaire and identify potential careers based on your preferences, go to: Career One Stop Questionnaire

Did you find out anything interesting? Think of this activity as a starting point to your career exploration.  Other great ways for young adults to research careers include informational interviewing, job shadowing, volunteering, practicums, and internships. Once you have a few careers in mind that you want to find out more about, go to the Occupational Outlook Handbook from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics to learn about job tasks, required education, average pay, and projected outlook for the future.

Career Development and Employment

Work plays a significant role in the lives of people, and emerging and early adulthood is the time when most people make choices that will help establish our careers.

In recent years, young adults are more likely to find themselves job-hopping, and periodically returning to school for further education and retraining than in prior generations. However, researchers find that occupational interests remain fairly stable. Thus, despite the more frequent change in jobs, most people are generally seeking jobs with similar interests rather than entirely new careers.[4]

Recent research also suggests that Millennials are looking for something different in their place of employment. According to a Gallup poll report,[5] Millennials want more than a paycheck, they want a purpose. Unfortunately, only 29% of Millennials surveyed by Gallup reported that they were “engaged” at work. In fact, they report being less engaged than Gen Xers and Baby Boomers; with 55% of Millennials saying they are not engaged at all with their job. This indifference to their workplace may explain the greater tendency to switch jobs. With their current job giving them little reason to stay, they are more likely to take any new opportunity to move on. Only half of Millennials saw themselves working at the same company a year later. Gallup estimates that this employment turnover and lack of engagement costs businesses $30.5 billion a year.

Around the world, teens and young adults were some of the hardest hit by the economic downturn in recent years and by Covid-19.[6] Consequently, a number of young people have become NEETs, neither employed nor in education or training. While the number of young people who are NEETs has declined, there is concern that “without assistance, economically inactive young people won’t gain critical job skills and will never fully integrate into the wider economy or achieve their full earning potential.”[7] In Europe, where the rates of NEETs are persistently high, there is also concern that having such large numbers of young adults with little opportunity may increase the chances of social unrest.

Please visit the links below for a summary of some of these early adulthood topics, but from a slightly different perspective—that of generations or cohorts. “Millennials” are defined as individuals who were born between 1981 and 1996, and as such, they make up a large part of today’s young adults. “Gen Zers” are defined as those born after 1996.

Links to Learning: Gen zers, Millenials, and Other Generations

  1. Bordoloi Pazich, L. (2018, September 26). The power of academic friendship. Inside Higher Ed.
  2. Henseler, C. (2017, September 6). Liberal arts is the foundation for professional success in the 21st century. Huffington Post.,success%20in%20the%2021st%20century.
  3. Holland, J. (1984). Making vocational choices: A theory of vocational personalities and work environments (2nd ed.). Prentice Hall.
  4. Rottinghaus, P. J., Coon, K. L., Gaffey, A. R., & Zytowski, D. G. (2007). Thirty-year stability and predictive validity of vocational interests. Journal of Career Assessment15(1), 5–22.
  5. Gallup Poll Report (2016). What millennials want from work and life. Business Journal.
  6. Desilver, D. (2016) Millions of young people in the US and EU are neither working nor learning. Pew Research Center.
  7. Desilver, D. (2016) Millions of young people in the US and EU are neither working nor learning. Pew Research Center.


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Individual and Family Development, Health, and Well-being Copyright © 2022 by Diana Lang; Nick Cone; Margaret Clark-Plaskie; Laura Overstreet; Martha Lally; and Suzanne Valentine-French is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.