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For the past few generations, a degree was seen as a golden ticket to a successful and high-paying career. For our parents and grandparents, it was almost a given that higher education would lead to higher pay and senior roles with more challenges and responsibilities.

However, Gen Z is observing a marked departure from this once-established norm.

Ironically, if you type in “does a degree lead to a better career” in Google, you’ll be faced with a slew of conflicting advice.

In one corner of our virtual battleground, half of the search results are universities that tout headlines like, “Investing in your future: Why a Bachelor’s Degree is worth it” from a well-known American university, or an even more alarmist headline of “Why earning a college degree is critical for career success.”

In the other corner, online platforms like Reddit, YouTube, and personal blogs are brimming with personal anecdotes from those who forged lucrative careers without a traditional four-year degree and who managed to snatch up some of the most in-demand jobs in the UK.

But the conversation doesn’t end there. Somewhere in the middle, there’s a dialogue unfolding about the degree = good job debate, with people questioning if this narrative is still accurate in today’s world.

The pressing question remains: what do recent graduates actually think about today’s job market? Let’s find out.

Central to this discussion is the notion of oversaturation of the UK job market. Some people argue that, as access to higher education expands, the job market becomes saturated with degree holders and dilutes the distinctiveness of possessing a degree. This makes it harder for graduates to stand out based solely on their academic credentials.

In 2002, 24% of the UK population was defined as a graduate. Over the course of two decades, that number has nearly doubled. According to the latest census release, 42% of the UK population were graduates in 2017.

The census notes that, “This reflects changes to education since the 1970s, which have led to it becoming more common for people to undertake higher education and less common for people to have no qualifications” — a trend that will continue in the years to come. 

Some millennials and Gen Zers have taken a different path by shunning the traditional college setting. With the advent of digital platforms and the gig economy, there are now more ways than ever to acquire skills (and a career) without the need for a four-year degree. Online courses, boot camps, and self-taught skills are becoming increasingly legitimate in the eyes of employers, especially those in the tech and start-up industries.

Likewise, the rise of digital fields like technology, marketing, and content creation has led to a reevaluation of what qualifications are truly necessary for success. For many Gen Zers, the focus has shifted from traditional education to practical experience and skills. There are thousands of self-taught programmers, digital marketers, web developers, graphic designers, and freelance writers that are making excellent money (if not more) than their counterparts who hold a degree.

Of course, this shift towards non-traditional education paths largely depends on the industry. Fields such as medicine, law, education, architecture, and aerospace, among others, maintain stringent educational and certification requirements that can’t be sidestepped through online courses.

Another popular theme in the degree vs career debate is the phrase, it’s not what you know, but who you know.

Let’s consider a real-world example: a Redditor shared how they had a significant challenge finding a job after completing their bachelor’s degree. Seeking to improve their job prospects, they went back to school for a master’s degree and took full advantage of their university’s career service, including a mentoring program.

The mentor, who was well-connected in the industry, introduced the Redditor to a company that they “had no idea about.” The result? The Redditor was offered a job during the first interview, and the company even sent a message to the mentor thanking them for “sending such an amazing candidate their way.”

In the same thread, other users offered their take. One lamented that “this was one of the [worst] years in a long time” due to the imminent recession, and that companies don’t have money to expand and hire new employees. Another user, a STEM graduate with a BSc and Master’s, agreed, noting that they couldn’t find anything other than minimum wage work.

Of course, this isn’t the job market’s first rodeo, so to speak. Graduates from 2008 and 2020 can attest to the challenges posed by economic downturns and global crises. Fellow Varsity contributor Holly Pearce continued to pursue a career in the arts during the lockdown. She noted, “I am actively encouraging myself to remember that there are such a variety of careers out there, and to not be afraid to try one, and move on to another… I encourage others to do the same. Tunnel vision benefits no one: passion and ambition are not confined to one single thing.”

Much like Holly, we should remember that while a job holds significance in our lives, it doesn’t encapsulate our entire identity. While we should place an emphasis on finding a suitable job, it shouldn’t be the be-all and end-all of our existence — don’t forget to embrace the journey of personal exploration (such as studying a subject that interested you), be open to change, and continuously seek growth in all aspects of your life.