Business School Solutions to the Growing Epidemic of Job Unhappiness

By Bill Bergman, Instructor, University of Richmond Robins School of Business
February 10, 2016

By noon on the first workday of 2016, I received seven emails from former students moaning about how much they hated their jobs, and how determined they were to make a change in the New Year. These emails are representative of a growing dissatisfaction among young adults in the workforce. In fact, a recent Deloitte Millennial Survey found that 44 percent of young adults would leave their current employer to join a new company or do something different in the next two years.

Early-career jobs have never been particularly pleasant. However, if business schools are going to play a role in solving this growing “unhappiness epidemic” among young professionals, then they are going to have to infuse a dose of reality into their already crowded curricula.

Stringent grading used to be the way to toughen students up to the realities of the business world. However, grade inflation has taken that option away. Today, faculty qualify for merit increases and tenure based on positive student evaluations. No professor would ever get rewarded for flunking students or giving consistently low grades.


"The real world of business operates with more twists and turns, where unreasonable bosses and demanding clients quickly disrupt students' predictable academic formula for success."


Aside from the issue of grade inflation, almost all activities inside business school classrooms are methodically planned out in advance. Many course syllabi outline every class period with specific due dates for assignments and exams. After the first day of class, students know exactly what to expect. Once they load everything into their Apple calendars, the next 15 weeks are completely defined.

Shorter semesters combined with precisely scheduled, over-programmed students stymie most efforts to experiment with innovative approaches in the classroom. With fewer class sessions, just completing the basics of a subject is challenging for instructors.

This accelerated learning process leaves students thinking that if they read the material, listen to an authority figure, think critically, and score well on a test, they will succeed and be happy at their first job. Unfortunately, the real world of business operates with more twists and turns, where unreasonable bosses and demanding clients quickly disrupt students' predictable academic formula for success.

These trends in business education have been evolving for well over a decade. There is no simple fix. However, here are three steps educators can take to make the classroom experience more representative of the real world and potentially reduce early job dissatisfaction:

1. CREATE A SYLLABUS THAT IS LESS DETAILED

It’s time to accept the fact students spend less time in the classroom than they used to. Educators have to readjust their expectations. There is a limit to the material that can be covered in the ever-shrinking college semester now laden with more breaks, holidays, and special days off for interviewing or athletic events.

Rather than define every single class period, instructors need to simplify the syllabus with some general learning expectations, assignment due dates, and exam dates. Instead of the syllabus being 10-pages of academic precision, it should be reduced to explain broad class goals and expectations.

Not knowing exactly what’s going to happen each class period forces students out of their digital-calendar comfort zone. It also gives the instructor more freedom to go in unique directions based on how students in a particular section interact with each other.

2. GO BEYOND CRITICAL THINKING AND PROBLEM IDENTIFICATION

Leadership consultant Peter Economy writes in Inc.com that “the disparity between expectation and reality is the reason behind millennials’ unhappiness” at work. Most young adults are just unprepared for the daily rigors of corporate life where their ideas may not always be appreciated or heard. It’s no wonder that a Gallup Organization study found that over 70 percent of young adults feel disengaged at work.

Rather than offering a skill set to deal with these issues, many modern day business schools simply add fuel to their outrage. Most courses reward students who can methodically work through complex problems and identify feasible solutions. Supported with a library of real-world cases, students develop talents in critical thinking and problem identification.

Yet, implementation strategies and the hurdles they present are much less studied and analyzed. When students enter the workforce, they have little to no appreciation for how long it takes and how much disruption can be caused by what appear to be logical solutions supported by data and research.

Business problems may be identified with analytics, but it takes nuanced interpersonal skills to implement change, such as approaching entrenched department heads on new ways to resolve old problems. A deeper understanding by students of the patience, tolerance, and communications techniques required to put new ideas into practice might help solve some of their disengagement issues, especially during the first years of employment.

3. DON'T FEAR BEING UNPREDICTABLE

The best opportunity business schools have to reduce the growing early-career unhappiness epidemic is to add some spontaneity and irrationality into the classroom. This may not make young professionals feel more fulfilled in their early jobs, but at least it will better prepare them for the unpredictable work cultures they are about to enter.

Every opportunity should be seized to take students out of their comfortable and predictable routines. After all, their parents have programmed their lives since grammar school; the college classroom is the last great frontier to rid them of this behavior.

Unplanned subject discussions, unexpected group presentations, and even old-fashioned pop tests actually help even the best students get ready for the realities of their earlier-generation bosses’ startling behavior and for evolving corporate cultures. As author Sandy Hingston writes in Philadelphia Magazine, the “brutish behavior of elderly boomers … can come as a great shock” to new millennial employees “forced to adapt to structures in place instead of having those structures warp to accommodate [them].”

Perhaps there is no cure for the age-old problem of early career unhappiness. Time and experience may be the only successful treatment of the chronic disease. But like most educators, I find it difficult to stand helplessly by watching former students suffer a year of unrest, when making some changes in their business school education could make a big difference in their first job experience.


Bill BergmanBill Bergman is a full-time instructor of marketing at the University of Richmond Robins School of Business. He is also president and CEO of the Bergman Group, a Richmond-based marketing and communications company.