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Most recent college graduates are emotionally unprepared to survive in the 9-5 workplace, according to a survey that experts say confirms a growing trend.

The Mary Christie Institute, a Boston nonprofit that studies the mental health of emerging adults, surveyed 1,005 professionals aged 22-28 who hold a bachelor’s degree. More than half said they sought help for emotional problems such as anxiety or depression in the past year (51%) and experienced burnout at least once a week (53%).

“Shakespeare wrote ‘readiness is all,’ but today large numbers of young people are just not ready for life’s real challenges,” former Education Secretary William Bennett told The Washington Times, commenting on the survey. “Too many are intellectually, emotionally and dispositionally not ready for marriage, family, work and responsibility. But of this you can be sure: They are loaded with attitude and loads of complaints.”

The survey echoes others before the pandemic that found growing numbers of young people unprepared for jobs. Parental rights advocates blame decades-long trends toward soft parenting and falling academic standards, which they say COVID-19 school closures accelerated.

“Unfortunately, a generation raised with participation trophies in a culture that promotes false ideas about self-esteem was almost bound to be shocked when entering the real world,” said Caroline Cyr of the Clare Boothe Luce Center for Conservative Women.

Only 13% of adults responding to a 2015 Gallup poll strongly agreed that college graduates were well-prepared for success in the workplace. That was down from 14% in 2013 and 19% in 2012, Gallup found.

And a 2018 McGraw-Hill Education survey found that only 4 in 10 college students felt “very or extremely prepared” for their future careers.

“The reality is that we are in danger of producing a generation of unproductive narcissists,” said Mark Hancock, CEO of Trail Life USA, a faith-based scouting group. “Unproductive because we don’t challenge them in meaningful ways, and narcissists because, in the interest of their pseudo-self-esteem, we do not permit growth-inducing failure.”

Academic standards have fallen as teachers from grade school to college focus on “making students feel good” regardless of effort or results, said Melanie Collette, a former high school teacher.

“This lack of expectation for academic excellence sets both students and institutions up for failure,” said Ms. Collette, a business technology expert at the National Center for Public Policy Research’s Project 21, a network of Black conservatives.

In an email, Ms. Collette blamed “lax disciplinary action and unresponsive parents who only wanted their children to pass rather than excel” for lower academic standards.

Another problem is that schools and parents have stopped teaching character, said Arthur Schwartz, a former English teacher at Strawberry Mansion High School in Philadelphia.

He said character education includes the value of acting with honesty, responsibility, respect and generosity.

“Character education builds positive thoughts about who students want to be and fosters the strengths that help them succeed in the workplace, especially when they are facing burnout and might be persuaded to take the easy way instead of the right way,” said Mr. Schwartz, who, as president of, certifies schools and school districts in character education standards.

Of the young professionals the Mary Christie Institute surveyed, 39% blamed their college for not teaching them workplace skills or emotional and behavioral standards.

“It’s no surprise they turn out to be emotional cripples,” said Sheri Few, president of United States Parents Involved in Education. “The problem is old, but it’s getting worse.”

Others disagree. Slinical psychologist Thomas Plante, a member of the American Psychological Association, said it’s “inappropriate” to blame colleges.

“There are many societal factors that contribute to poor coping skills among youth and they come to colleges already mostly formed,” said Mr. Plante, a professor at Santa Clara University in California. “Many of my students felt burnt out before they even got to college.”

The psychologist noted in an email that anxiety, depression, suicide risks and substance abuse among young people have seen “a dramatic rise in recent years” and have “just gotten worse since the pandemic.”

“College students have much less resilience today than in the past and generally lack the important coping strategies for stress management that would serve them well,” Mr. Plante said, pointing to the rise of special needs accommodations in K-12 education as an example.

But “a growing chasm between the college world and the real world” also encourages “lazy people who have never learned the value of a hard day of work,” said Andrew Crapuchettes, CEO of Red Balloon, a job-hunting website.

And employers using the Idaho-based recruitment agency don’t want to hire lazy college grads, he added in an email.

“Employers are saying that young adults coming out of school simply don’t want to work,” Mr. Crapuchettes said.

Despite rich opportunities for undergraduates to find jobs, internships and extracurricular activities, many prefer to “engage on social media,” enjoy life and watch TV, said Ronald J. Rychlak, a University of Mississippi law professor.

“Some students develop bad habits, not necessarily substance abuse, but a lack of drive,” said Mr. Rychlak, a faculty athletics representative. “The working world can hit those folks kind of hard. It’s a real adjustment to be expected at the office 40 hours per week.”

Although older people always gripe about younger workers, some academics say colleges have also fed “helicopter” parenting and lowered academic standards.

Colleges teach students to “follow prescribed rules” and “memorize material rather than understand it” before launching them into workplaces that expect them to “function independent of the constant overwatch they experienced” in school, said Sam Kain, a finance instructor at Walsh College in Michigan.

“That would be stressful for people expecting to be told specifically what to do,” Mr. Kain said. “Just the casual observations of an old guy.”

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