Should College Graduates Accept Job Offers with Lower Salaries during the Coronavirus Pandemic?

In this post, I respond to a concern I’ve heard from many college graduates entering the job market during the coronavirus pandemic. College graduates tell me that they are torn between taking any job offer available and holding out for a salary that meets their expectations. They know the economy is weak, but at the same time, they don’t want to find themselves stuck in a low-paying job through 2021 and beyond.

Indeed, we are in a recession, which means that many job offers include salaries well below pre-pandemic levels. College graduates are logging into sites like Glassdoor only to find out that the “average salary” for their field is thousands of dollars more than what they’ve been offered. 

To be clear, the answer to this problem isn’t, “Stop being picky.” Salary decisions have serious ramifications. Many studies show that taking a lower salary during a recession can translate to a full decade of lower-than-average income. This is because it takes time to make up for that lost earning power. 

I’ve also heard college graduates express concern that if they take a lower salary, they will overwork themselves or have to take on a second job to pay their bills. They fear they’re walking into inevitable burnout.

So, should college graduates accept a sub-par job offer or hold out for a better deal? Here is my advice on navigating this serious and complicated situation.

Assess Your Financial Risk Tolerance

We are living in incredibly tough and unpredictable times right now. We don’t know when or how this pandemic is going to end. We don’t know how the economy is going to bounce back. This means you have to weigh your risk tolerance carefully when deciding whether or not to take a job offer. 

Are you somebody who has the means, savings or family support to wait for an opportunity that aligns with your salary expectations? Or do you have student loans, car payments and rent payments that are due next month? I respect all situations, but ultimately this is a choice that only you can make. I encourage you to make that choice based on your financial realities, not wishful thinking.

If you haven’t already, create a monthly budget and figure out your basic income needs. Then you can determine whether an offered salary is truly too low or just lower than you had hoped.

Weigh Other Considerations

That said, even if a job offer lands below your salary expectations, I would lean toward accepting the job if you’re able to live within that budget. An offer in hand is a limited commodity right now. And money isn’t the only deciding factor for taking a job. Ask yourself whether you’d be working for a good organization. Do you think that you will learn from the opportunity? Will you meet anyone through that opportunity that could get you to the next level in the future?

When deciding whether to accept a job offer, pay attention to company culture and company mission.

Consider Company Culture

Survey data shows that Millennials and Gen Zers tend to prioritize the culture of an organization. That’s right – you might prioritize culture over your salary. In interviews, ask about what it’s like to work at the company. Not only will this show the recruiter that you’ve done your company research, but you’ll also be able to imagine yourself working (or not working) in that specific organization. Pay attention to various factors that affect company culture like:

  • A productive and passionate team attitude
  • Mobility, i.e., opportunities to work in multiple departments or job roles
  • Internal and external networking opportunities
  • Professional training and development opportunities

…And Company Mission

While company culture and company mission are closely related, it’s worth considering company mission on its own. If you care about what the organization is doing for the greater good, that might be worth taking a lower salary.

Don’t underestimate how fulfilling a purposeful job can be (as long as you still have enough money for your needs, of course).

Succeed Wherever You Are

You might take a less-than-ideal position now, but there’s no reason why you can’t turn it into something better. If you want more compensation, excel in your role and, when times are better, prove to your manager that you deserve to get paid what you’re worth. You can do this by exceeding expectations, learning about what opportunities may be available in the future, documenting how much money and opportunity you bring into the organization and taking careful note of what it takes to succeed in that particular environment. 

Sometimes it’s better to ask for a raise at an organization where you’re already succeeding rather than waiting and trying to get a higher paying job later on. When the employment outlook improves, you can use your success at this organization to get a higher paying job elsewhere. So, think about charting a course that will get you to where you want to be even if you’re starting a little lower than you’d hoped. 

Of course, as always, use your best judgment and trust your gut. I’m not saying to settle for a job that’s beneath you. I’m saying that right now, it might make the most sense to take an available job with less money and work your butt off to get to the place that you want to be in the future. Even in the best economy, a successful, high-paying career takes tremendous dedication.


For more insights on finding a job during the COVID-19 pandemic, I invite you to stream my webinar with Chelsea C. Williams of College Code. Watch “Essential Advice for Entry-Level Job and Internship Hunting During COVID-19” now.

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Lindsey is a globally recognized career and workplace expert and the leading voice on generational diversity. She has spoken for more than 300 audiences including Google, Goldman Sachs, Estee Lauder, Stanford and Wharton. Lindsey is the author of four career and workplace advice books, and her insights have appeared in media outlets including The TODAY Show, CNBC, NPR, the Harvard Business Review and the Wall Street Journal.


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