Young adults over the next several weeks will be graduating from college. The next few years for many will be a time of trying out different job options in the search for a rewarding career. I really should say “careers,” since most will zig and zag into different careers during their work lives.

The search is worth it, even if it takes numerous pivots to land on a career that then-Vice President Joe Biden put the goal in a commencement address at Yale in 2015:

“The truth is, though, that neither I, nor anyone else, can tell you what will make you happy, help you find success. … But one thing I’ve observed, one thing I know, an expression my dad would use often, is real. … It’s a lucky man or woman gets up in the morning, puts both feet on the floor, knows what they’re about to do, and thinks it still matters.”

The desire to make a difference through work is admirable. “We want work that is challenging and engaging, that enables us to exercise some discretion and control over what we do, and that provides us opportunities to learn and to grow,” wrote Barry Schwartz, professor of psychology at Swarthmore College in “Why We Work.” “Most of all we want work that is meaningful — that makes a difference to other people and this ennobles us in at least some small way.”

My advice for recent graduates is to take your time. Experiment. Don’t be afraid of testing out different jobs and organizations, or even starting your own business.

OK, but what about repaying those student loans?

The advice to pursue your dreams at work may be nice, but those student loans have to be repaid. A recent study by Mi Luo of Emory University and Simon Mongey of the University of Chicago supports the career deadening impact of student loans.

Higher student debt leads graduates to find work with higher wages, but at the price of lower job satisfaction and lower rates of employment in low-paying public interest jobs. The pressure to pay off student loans constrains the kind of experimentation I’m recommending.

Yet the scholars also found that the less pressing payment requirements of the income-driven repayment plan allows students to take jobs with higher job satisfaction. The income-driven plan slashes the monthly tab for federal student loan borrowers.

Yes, stretching out the repayment timetable means a higher overall cost of borrowing. Yet there is no prepayment penalty. You can always accelerate payments later when your career is more settled and your wages are higher.


Chris Farrell is senior economics contributor, “Marketplace,” commentator, Minnesota Public Radio.