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Student Voices: How the Pandemic Impacted Career Meaning-Making

Student Success Career and Workforce Development Administrators in Graduate and Professional Student Services Student Career Development Faculty New Professional Senior Level VP for Student Affairs
December 1, 2022 Michael J. Stebleton University of Minnesota-Twin Cities

JCC Connexions, Vol. 9, No. 1, February, 2023 

New Spaces & Roles for Student Affairs: An Ongoing Column of JCC Connexions

How has the pandemic shaped the way undergraduate students think about their career? Perhaps it has altered their understanding of what it means to be successful in an ever-shifting world of work. Based on my work with undergraduates inside and outside the classroom, I argue many students are re-evaluating their relationship to work and achievement, and what it means to be accomplished in one’s career.

Defining ‘Career’

In this Student Voices blog series, I share some insights, evidence, and most importantly, student voices around the topics of career development, career-life planning, and what it means to be successful. In each of these three blog entries, I intend to include some student perspectives on a variety of questions or writing prompts that I solicited from my undergraduate students in the middle of the pandemic. Career is often viewed as paid work roles. My colleague Tristram Hooley defines career as "how one spends their time." For the purposes of this blog, I will be defining career as the constellation of life roles assumed throughout one’s lifetime, acknowledging that these roles will be constantly shifting given the precarity of future work (Brown & Lent, 2020).

This blog post will explore the initial question posed to students: “How do you think Covid-19 influenced your values about work and life overall?” All students were enrolled in a course titled, OLPD 2811: Societies of the Future: The Changing Workplace. The curriculum examines the shifting nature of work, the role of technology, and how students can prepare for these changes. The course met in-person in Fall 2021, the first term the university returned to on-campus instruction since March 2020.

Career Shocks as a Framework

Scholar Jos Akkermans and colleagues introduced the idea of career shocks as a contemporary concept of career development. According to Akkermans et al. (2018), a career shock can be defined as “a disruptive and extraordinary event that is, at least to some degree, caused by factors outside the focal individual’s control and that triggers a deliberate thought process concerning one’s career” (p. 4). Career shocks involve an event and a process of initial sense and meaning-making; they can be positive or negative in response to how they impact an individual. It is an intrapsychic reaction to an external event.

 Are Career Shocks Positive or Negative? It Depends

Positive career shocks include getting an unexpected promotion or raise; or being invited to apply for a new job or opportunity that might result in a significant life change (e.g., geographical move). On the other hand, career shocks can be negative and have a deleterious effect on an individual. Negative career shocks often include: an unanticipated layoff or firing; extended unemployment; or an unexpected natural event. Perceptions of career shocks can be complex: The pandemic serves as a prime example of a negative career shock for many individuals. Yet, the pandemic may have afforded new, positive opportunities (e.g., a new career direction after an untimely layoff or prolonged unemployment). Career shocks can also vary based on the frequency, duration, and source of the event – and individuals experience these shocks differently. It should be noted that some groups of students (e.g., first-generation, low-income, some students from minoritized groups) may have experienced exacerbated inequities brought on by the pandemic, leading to a greater frequency and duration of negative career shocks.

The Case Against Workism

For many young people, the pandemic served as a career shock in that it forced them to reflect and often re-evaluate the meaning of school and/or work in their lives. There is some evidence to suggest that students and young graduates may be less career-obsessed compared to older employees. Several years ago, writer Derek Thompson (2019) introduced the concept of workism as the new religion to which young employees adhere, essentially tying their identity and self-worth to their productivity and success achieved in their careers. In a recent Atlantic Monthly article, Thompson (2023) provided evidence that perhaps America’s obsession with work (and workaholism) is beginning to wane, at least for some populations. It is possible that the pandemic shaped a reevaluation of work in young students’ lives as well.

Students as Career Skeptical

Journalist Charlie Warzel (2021) discussed how today’s undergraduates and recent graduates are “career skeptical.” Many graduates do not desire a traditional career, as they have come to conceptualize it (i.e., linear, continuous pathway). Having seen parents and older siblings being laid off or treated poorly by supervisors at the beginning of the pandemic, they have intentionally decided to opt out of the career-at-all costs mentality that dominates much of the achievement-focused discourse about what it means to be successful. In any case, there seems to be some movement around the reassessment of values and the meaning of work among today’s students.

In Their Own Voices: Student Reflections

Based on my observations in the course, I decided to ask my students to respond to some questions about Covid-19 and the potential influence on their career-life decision-making. What follows is a collection of written responses from students based on one of the prompts: “How do you think Covid-19 influences your values about work and life overall?” My observations are not based on a formal thematic analysis or rigorous methodology; that was not my objective.

Rather, I wanted to gather their written responses as they related to the prompt and the objectives of the course. All the students were juniors and seniors and enrolled in the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. The two most common majors are human resource development (HRD) and business marketing education (BME). Here are some of their responses, followed by my informal analysis and recommendations for student affairs educators.

One student wrote,

“Covid has really changed my values about life and work. For me, I realized work is not everything, and it is important to enjoy life and relax. Also, work is something that should be flexible, not constricting.”

Another upper-level student in education added,

“It’s made me realize that it’s important to put things like family and friends first. It’s important to make time to do things you enjoy, rather than being at work or doing schoolwork all the time. If you’re not happy, it’s important to change your ways so that you can try to make things better.”

Other students discussed how the pandemic allowed them the time and space to re-evaluate key decisions made, including decisions about major and career pathways:

“Covid-19 has allowed me to take a step back and re-evaluate what I want to do with my life. I switched my major at the end of my junior year. Sounds like a crazy idea but it has been one of my best decisions yet. I am a lot happier now and [look forward] to what opportunities may look like in the future.”

Additionally, one student who worked in the service industry provided concrete ideas about how the pandemic impacted her:

“Covid has influenced my work by making me realize that I never want to work in the restaurant industry again. Customers showed their true colors, and they treated the service industry as if they were peasants. As for values in life, it makes me appreciate the time I had with family more and cherish every moment because you don’t know how much time you’ll have left.”

Other students talked about getting out of their safety zone, how they missed in-person learning, and took up new hobbies (e.g., yoga, mindfulness, crafts). One junior student reflected on what they bring to the workplace and their talents: “I have more self-respect with how I am being treated because I know I can find work elsewhere.”

Observations From Student Reflections:

I offer three main observations or insights that come from these student quotes.

(1) The pandemic served as a career shock for many students. Throughout the pandemic, students had the time to reflect and reassess their educational journey, switching majors and career pathways. They had the opportunity to reflect on their values and make meaning of their experiences. From this perspective, their career shocks could be perceived as a combination of both positive and negative.

(2) For many students, they realized how important family, friends, and relationships are to them. Paid work garners the most attention when career educators talk about life roles. However, the paid worker role needs to be integrated with other life roles (e.g., friend, son/daughter, partner). Students talked about the value of their relationships with family and friends, and many vowed to spend more time with them in the future. For some students (e.g., first-generation students), helping family members with child and elder care tasks led to more unpaid work during the pandemic, based out of necessity and survival.

(3) Although the students did not use the language of Thompson’s workism construct, many students acknowledged that there is more to life than traditional work success and external achievement. This observation aligns with Warzel’s contention that many students are now career skeptical, knowing that they should not rely on work or organizations “to love them back” in the words of Sarah Jaffe (2021), author of Work Will Not Love You Back. Moreover, many students scrutinize and even scoff at trite messages of "just follow your passion" (Cech, 2021). Other students work (or a combination of jobs) that allows them to have to have a full life outside the confines of their paid work roles.

Strategies for Student Affairs Educators

So, what does all this mean for student affairs educators, faculty, and administrators in higher education? I humbly offer three recommendations for ideas about supporting students around these issues.

(1) Promote holistic student development and a resilience mindset: Aim to support students around the different components of student development, including positive mental health and wellbeing. A recent NASPA survey reported that over 60% of college students met the criteria for at least one mental health issue in the 2020-2021 school year (Edelman, 2023). Partnering with mental health resources on campus and in the community remains critical. Building resilience may be an effective strategy for students and young graduates to confront future career shocks (Akkermans et al., 2021).

2) Engage in career or career-related conversations with students: My colleague Candy Ho, based out of BC Canada, contends that every conversation has the potential to be a career conversation (Stebleton & Ho, 2023, forthcoming). What this means is that all student affairs educators can see themselves as career influencers in students’ lives (Ho, 2019). Take the time to ask students about their lives and what their personal and professional goals might include.

3) Support students around discussions of values, meaning, and spirituality in their lives. Many students are eager to have these conversations with faculty and student affairs educators. Now is an ideal time to create spaces where these types of authentic conversations can occur, where students can explore such questions as: What are my values? What is my purpose? or What do I want to contribute to the world to address an unmet problem or ongoing challenge? (Rath, 2020).

Students as the Endpoints of Our Actions

In conclusion, it is important that we continue to support our students through these challenging times. As long as the pandemic continues to have an impact, life remains uncertain for many of our students. Inevitably, there will be future career shocks and student affairs educators can prepare students for those events. Being resilient, agile, and flexible will become lifelong qualities for graduates to possess. Kaufman and Schipper (2018) urged educators to always work with students from a place of compassion and care. They stated that students will always be “the endpoints of our actions” (p. 11). This message about compassion in the academy is a critical reminder for all educators as we continue to support students in these challenging times.


Akkermans, J., Seibert, S. E. and Mol, S. T. (2018). Tales of the unexpected: integrating career shocks in contemporary careers literature. SA Journal of Industrial Psychology, 44, e1503.

Akkermans, J., Rodrigues, R., Mol, S. T., Seibert, S. E., & Khapova, S. N. (2021). The role of career shocks in contemporary career development: Key challenges and ways forward. Career Development International, 26(4), 453-466. https://doi.org/10.1108/cdi-07-2021-0172

Brown, S. D., & Lent, R. W. (2020). Career development and counseling: Putting theory and research to work. Wiley & Sons.

Cech, E. (2021). The trouble with passion: How searching for fulfillment at work fosters inequality. University of California Press.

Edelman, J. (2023, January 23). NASPA survey reveals further declines in campus mental health. Diverse Issues in Higher Education. https://www.diverseeducation.com/reports-data/article/15305803/naspa-survey-reveals-further-declines-in-campus-mental-health

Ho, C. (2019). Professionals in post-secondary education: Conceptions of career influence. (Doctoral dissertation, Simon Fraser University, Surrey, Canada). http://summit.sfu.ca/item/18827 

Jaffe, S. (2021). Work won't love you back: How devotion to our jobs keeps us exploited, exhausted, and alone. Bold Type Books.

Kaufman, P., & Schipper, J. (2018). Teaching with compassion: An educator’s oath to teach from the heart. Rowman & Littlefield.

Rath, T. (2020). Life's great question: Discover how you contribute to the world. Silicon Guild Books.

Stebleton, M. J., & Ho, C. (2023, May). Career development is everyone’s responsibility: Envisioning educators as career influencers. Journal of College & Character. In Press.

Thompson, D. (2019, February 24). Workism is making Americans miserable. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/02/religion-workism-making-americans-miserable/583441/

Thompson, D. (2023, January 31). America's fever with workaholism is finally breaking. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/newsletters/archive/2023/01/american-rich-men-work-less-hours-workism/672895/

Warzel, C. (2021, August 30). What if people don't want 'a career?'. Galaxy Brain. https://warzel.substack.com/p/what-if-people-dont-want-a-career

Discussion Questions

(1) What observations have you noticed about how students talk about career and the meaning of work in their lives, especially since the onset of Covid-19?

2) Identify one initiative or program that you could offer to promote student reflection on career-life planning.

(3) Ho contends that every conversation can be a career conversation. What does that mean to you? What might be one conversation you could start with a student, keeping this perspective in mind?

(4) What is one concept or idea from this blog that you can apply to your own professional development?

Acknowledgement: The author would like to thank Vic Massaglia, Abby Wilfert, and Gary Peter for their thoughtful comments and contributions.