Why Gen Y Should Get a Real Job


According to all sorts of surveys and labor statistics, Gen Y is destined to become the most entrepreneurial generation in history. Popular wisdom says that’s all well and good. After all, it’s America’s entrepreneurial spirit that sets us apart. Besides, there are no jobs, anyway, so why not just get out there and make it happen on your own? One book even suggests that Millennials should never get a real job.

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Well, I’ve got a real problem with that.

Although it might be good advice for some people, for the vast majority of you, it’s not.

If you think you’ve got it in you to be the next Mark Zuckerberg, then go for it. Be my guest. Otherwise, you’ll probably be far better off getting a real job in a real company or two before embarking on an entrepreneurial career. And you know what? It doesn’t even matter if you’re Generation X, Y, Z or whatever comes after that.

Here’s why: “Gen Y is different” is a myth.

All the popular Gen Y workplace themes we hear over and over--the slow recovery, no jobs, student loan debt, inflexible workplaces, no work-life balance, new technology, even personal branding--are nothing new. Most of the baby boomers I started out with dealt with all the same issues. Every new generation does. Personally, I think we’ve all seen enough patronizing and exploiting Gen Y to last a lifetime.

Strong careers are built on solid foundations. I joined a big high-tech company right out of school. Frankly, I didn’t know any better. But I learned how business and companies work. It gave me a solid foundation in business fundamentals, management skills, organizational processes, and best practices that were critical to my success in start-ups and high-growth companies. It paid off big time later in my career, when it mattered most. If I knew then what I know now, I wouldn’t change a thing.

Mentoring is a higher priority in bigger companies. If you haven’t been around a lot of entrepreneurs who've spent their entire careers in start-ups, here's a dose of reality. They didn’t get a whole lot of mentoring, so they’re not particularly comfortable in the role themselves. It’s no coincidence that companies such as GE, IBM, and Procter & Gamble are on the resumés of hundreds of CEOs. They make leadership and management mentoring a priority, and that’s what makes companies successful.

Exposure breeds opportunity. It’s a fundamental truth: Start-ups have narrow scopes and offer limited opportunities. If you start out in small or closely held companies, then you’ll simply never know what you don’t know. If you’re never exposed to a wide range of markets, companies, and job functions, you’ll forever have a narrow perspective and limited career potential. Ironically, you’ll develop a broader network and gain more exposure to start-up opportunities with an established company. You’ll make smarter career decisions, too.

It’s easier to do anything after you know how it works. Until you’ve done it, you have no basis to appreciate just how many factors go into building a successful business. It’s very hard and very risky. So many things have to go right, especially in today’s brutally competitive global markets. Sure, you can learn from trial and error, but as with anything, you’ll be better equipped to take on the challenge after you’ve seen how it works a few times.

What if you’re successful? Nobody ever thinks of that. What if you beat the odds and whatever you come up with goes viral or becomes a hot product? You’ll very soon find yourself running a business and an organization with, well, with what tools? Remember that big companies are just small companies that were successful, but if you don’t know what you’re doing, that’s not likely to happen. Which brings us to the last point:

Timing is everything. If I tell you that entrepreneurship isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and that doesn’t deter you, if there’s a raging hunger inside you that can be fulfilled only by doing your own thing or joining a start-up, then that’s what you should do. All I’m really saying is that it shouldn’t be the first thing you do right out of school. First, learn the ropes, develop a foundation, and gain some exposure. Then, you’ll be well equipped to make smart decisions and achieve career success.

This column originally appeared on Inc.com.

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