For a Good Job by 30, Do This in Your 20s
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For a Good Job by 30, Do This in Your 20s

New research shows which career paths pay off and why steps made between ages 20 and 26 are so critical

Wed, May 3, 2023 8:18amGrey Clock 4 min

Skepticism about the value of college is growing, but earning a four-year degree by your mid-20s is the surest route to a good job by age 30.

That is a key takeaway from a new analysis by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce that aims to identify the paths that bring people to good jobs. The findings are important as companies, individuals and families are trying to better understand how college degrees affect career outcomes.

Georgetown researchers examined government data for more than 8,000 Americans born in the early 1980s from adolescence through age 30. They identified 38 decision points that could influence workers’ ability to land what they deemed a good job by age 30—one that pays the minimum for economic self-sufficiency, a median annual salary of $57,000.

Pursuing a bachelor’s degree made more of a difference than any other decision that researchers analysed.

“The main road to a good job is still to go get the BA,” said Anthony Carnevale, who directs the Georgetown centre.

The researchers focused on people who didn’t go directly from high school to college, because the cohort that graduated college in their early 20s had a high rate of good job outcomes.

Millions of people start bachelor’s degrees, but don’t finish them by their mid-20s. Those non-finishers have a 40% chance of getting a good job by 30, Georgetown data show. If they eventually earned a bachelor’s degree by age 26, they would have a higher chance—56%—of getting a good job, Georgetown estimates.

Even starting a bachelor’s degree by age 22 made a difference for some high-school graduates. People who pursued an associate degree, skills training or certificate had a 29% shot at a good job, compared with 23% for those who didn’t pursue higher education by that age.

College Debt—and Payoff

Escalating college costs have complicated people’s decision to attend, said Zack Mabel, an author of the Georgetown report and a research professor of education and economics at the university.

The expected payoff to getting a bachelor’s degree is higher than it has ever been, Prof. Mabel said, but added, “with the rising cost of college, and the increasing debt that students and families have to take on, the risk of pursuing higher education is higher than it’s ever been.”

Some 56% of respondents to a recent Wall Street Journal-NORC poll said a four-year degree isn’t worth it, because students often leave with large student debt loads and no specific job skills. Ten years ago, 40% of people polled thought a college degree wasn’t worth it.

Dany Nguyen, 30 years old, started a job in Austin last year as a software developer for General Motors after a decade of working while going to school.

Mr. Nguyen, who graduated from high school in 2010, said he spent four years stocking shelves at a store, running food orders at a restaurant and working at a banquet hall while taking community-college classes at night. Though exhausting, the arrangement ensured he could pay his bills and tuition. He got skills and connections that led to better paying roles, he said, including an inventory job with a dental-product company that he learned about from a co-worker at a different job.

Mr. Nguyen ultimately transferred from community college to California State University, Long Beach, and finished his bachelor’s degree in management information systems last year. Today, he is making more than ever and sees the benefit to working his way through school.

“Being able to combine both school teamwork and work teamwork, you’re able to do your job efficiently,” he said.

Salaries for college graduates are higher than those without degrees, but data analysed by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis shows the gap in net worth between college grads and non grads has narrowed significantly. One reason is the high cost of college, with many grads’ higher earnings offset by student debt.

Renee Wooten worked while attending a for-profit university, delivering pizzas and fielding queries at a call centre, then turning a contract position in the video game industry into a full-time job with benefits. Mr. Wooten, 33, makes six figures as a video game producer but says having $40,000 in outstanding student debt is stressful.

“I don’t know if I would do it again,” Mr. Wooten said, adding that an associate degree to start may have been a better choice. “I’ve been dumping my bonuses and my tax returns into my student loans, just for them to be eaten up by interest.”

Industries Matter

Some companies have eliminated bachelor’s-degree requirements for hires, though almost 70% of the new jobs created in the U.S. between 2012 and 2019 were in occupations that typically require a four-year degree or higher for entry, according to Opportunity@Work, a nonprofit.

Georgetown’s analysis showed several other early-career decisions can help put 20-somethings on the path to a better-paying job if they don’t go to college after high school. Steady work between the ages of 20 and 22 and avoiding resume gaps in these years can help, researchers said, because hiring managers are more likely to hire experienced people who are actively working.

Industries count, too. Working at age 22 in a blue-collar job or in tech or finance, rather than fields such as education, food services and the arts, also helped raise the chance of getting a higher paying role. Still, workers who took one of those paths had no more than a 25% chance of landing a good job by 30. Those pathways proved more effective when combined with attending college.

Diego Padilla faced a choice in 2020 while in his late teens: Continue his internship with JP Morgan Chase, assisting clients with transactions such as opening accounts and withdrawals, or accept a full-time job managing a grocery store.

Mr. Padilla, then a fresh high-school graduate enrolled in community college, was drawn to the stability of a full-time job. But he wondered where he could go if he stayed at the bank. Now 22, Mr. Padilla has a full-time role with Chase, finished his associate degree and transferred to Chicago where he works with Chase clients.

Mr. Padilla is taking online classes in pursuit of his bachelor’s degree while working full time. After that he said he wants to get an M.B.A.


Consumers are going to gravitate toward applications powered by the buzzy new technology, analyst Michael Wolf predicts

Chris Dixon, a partner who led the charge, says he has a ‘very long-term horizon’

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The Embarrassment of Having to Explain Your ‘Monster’ Diamond Ring

Couples find that lab-grown diamonds make it cheaper to get engaged or upgrade to a bigger ring. But there are rocky moments.

Mon, Dec 11, 2023 4 min

Wedding planner Sterling Boulet has some advice for brides-to-be regarding lab-grown diamonds, which cost a fraction of the natural ones.

“If you’re trying to get your man to propose, they’ll propose faster if you offer this as an option,” says Boulet, of Raleigh, N.C. Recently, she adds, a friend’s fiancé “thanked me the next three times I saw him” for telling him about the cheaper lab-made option.

Man-made diamonds are catching on, despite some lingering stigma. This year was the first time that sales of lab-made and natural mined loose diamonds, primarily used as center stones in engagement rings, were split evenly, according to data from Tenoris, a jewellery and diamond trend-analytics company.

The rise of lab-made stones, however, is bringing up quirks alongside the perks. Now that blingier engagement rings—above two or three carats—are more affordable, more people are dealing with the peculiarities of wearing rather large rocks.

An engagement ring made with a lab-grown diamond at Ada Diamonds in New York City. PHOTO: CAM POLLACK/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Esther Hare, a 5-foot-11-inch former triathlete, sought out a 4.5-carat lab-made oval-shaped diamond to fit her larger hands as a part of her vow renewal in Hawaii last year. It was a far cry from the half-carat ring her husband proposed with more than 25 years ago and the 1.5-carat upgrade they purchased 10 years ago. Hare, 50, who lives in San Jose, Calif., and works in high tech, chose a $40,000 lab-made diamond because “it’s nuts” to have to spend $100,000 on a natural stone. “It had to be big—that was my vision,” she says.

But the size of the ring has made it less practical at times. She doesn’t wear it for athletic training and swaps in her wedding band instead. And she is careful to leave it at home when traveling. “A lot of times I won’t take it on vacation because it’s just a monster,” she says.

The average retail price for a one-carat lab-made loose diamond decreased to $1,426 this year from $3,039 in 2020, according to the Tenoris data. Similar-sized loose natural diamonds cost $5,426 this year, compared with $4,943 in 2020.

Lab-made diamonds have essentially the same chemical makeup as natural ones, and look the same, unless viewed through sophisticated equipment that gauges the characteristics of emitted light.

At Ritani, an online jewellery retailer, lab-made diamond sales make up about 70% of the diamonds sold, up from roughly 30% two years ago, says Juliet Gomes, head of customer service at the company, based in White Plains, N.Y.

Ritani sometimes records videos of the lab-diamonds pinging when exposed to a “diamond tester,” a tool that judges authenticity, to show customers that the man-made rocks behave the same as natural ones. We definitely have some deep conversations with them,” Gomes says.

Not all gem dealers are rolling with these stones.

Philadelphia jeweller Steven Singer only stocks the natural stuff in his store and is planning a February campaign to give about 1,000 one-carat lab-made diamonds away free to prove they are “worthless.” Anyone can sign up online and get one in the mail; even shipping is free. “I’m not selling Frankensteins that were built in a lab,” Singer says.

Some brides are turned off by the larger bling now allowed by the lower prices.When her now-husband proposed with a two-carat lab-grown engagement ring, Tiffany Buchert, 40, was excited about the prospect of marriage—but not about the size of the diamond, which she says struck her as “costume jewellery-ish.”

“I said yes in the moment, of course, I didn’t want it to be weird,” says the physician assistant from West Chester, Pa.

But within weeks, she says, she fessed up, telling her fiancé: “I think I hate this ring.”

The couple returned it and then bought a one-carat natural diamond for more than double the price.

Couples find that lab-grown diamonds have made it more affordable to get engaged. PHOTO: CAM POLLACK/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

When Boulet, the wedding planner in Raleigh, got engaged herself, she was over the moon when her fiancé proposed with a 2.3 carat lab-made diamond ring. “It’s very shiny, we were almost worried it was too shiny and was going to look fake,” she says.

It doesn’t, which presents another issue—looking like someone who really shelled out for jewellery. Boulet will occasionally volunteer that her diamond ring came from a lab.

“I don’t want people to think I’m putting on airs, or trying to be flashier than I am,” she says.

For Daniel Teoh, a 36-year-old software engineer outside of Detroit, buying a cheaper lab-made diamond for his fiancée meant extra room in his $30,000 ring budget.

Instead of a bigger ring, he got her something they could both enjoy. During a walk while on an annual ski trip to South Lake Tahoe, Calif., Teoh popped the question and handed his now-wife a handmade wooden box that included a 2.5-carat lab-made diamond ring—and a car key.

She put on the ring, celebrated with both of their sisters and a friend, who was the unofficial photographer of the happy event, and then they drove back to the house. There, she saw a 1965 Mustang GT coupe in Wimbledon white with red stripes and a bow on top.

Looking back, Teoh says, it was still the diamond that made the big first impression.

“It wasn’t until like 15 minutes later she was like ‘so, what’s with this key?’” he adds.


Consumers are going to gravitate toward applications powered by the buzzy new technology, analyst Michael Wolf predicts

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