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Colleges Should Support The Way People Really Work Today

There’s a common assumption that the normal thing that most adults of working age do is work. They enter the workforce early in their lives and work continuously until retirement age. How else would that go?

But recent research, looking at decades of work experience within the baby boomer generation, suggests that this pattern isn’t “normal” at all, for men or for women.  

Research by Dr. Sarah Damaske, a professor of sociology and labor and employment relations at Penn State University, and Dr. Adrianne Frech, an associate professor of population health at Ohio University, has shown that just 41% of baby boomer men actually worked continuously and steadily between ages 25 – 54. The rest, the majority, worked intermittently, had increasing periods of unemployment, exited from the labor force altogether, or started off with little work but gradually increased their career stability over time.

Given the loss of union manufacturing jobs and the rise of gig work, they expect that this pattern is increasingly significant for younger generations. In which case the stories we tell ourselves about how careers go for most people is simply not true for more than half the population.

“In fact,” they write, “men’s labor force participation has been steadily declining since the 1970s,” while they also note “women’s employment continues to be uneven and stalled” and overall “workers are experiencing greater labor market precarity – that is, shorter job spells, greater job insecurity and more long-term unemployment.”

If this research is true, then it suggests that we need to change our education system to reflect the real career trajectories of most adults and to better support them. Our education system shouldn’t support young people just once, as they enter the workforce, if most of them are going to be entering the workforce, leaving it, and re-entering it, many times over.

Indeed, one of the solutions the researchers see to supporting more stable employment and workforce participation is a college education, noting: “Our research shows that a college degree could protect men from the risk of unemployment or time out of work.”

Calbright’s mission is to reinvent college for adults struggling with just these issues: whether they are unemployed or underemployed, whether they are caregivers or can’t afford to go back to school, Calbright is finding ways to make career education work for them. 

We offer adults an online community college that is fast, flexible, and free. A community college which focuses on skills that are in demand and has a robust career services center to help them with their job searches. This can be useful for young adults just entering the workforce, but it can be vital for older adults who need support getting good jobs and new careers. From top to bottom, it is designed to support people living the lives we actually live, and the careers we actually have, rather than the myth of a career from generations ago that we assume people have. 

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