We Are Failing Our Children With Poor Career Advice

So many of us choose our path out of fear disguised as practicality. My father could’ve been a great comedian but he didn’t believe that that was possible for him. So he made a conservative choice. He got a safe job as an accountant, and when I was 12 years old he was let go from that safe job and we had to do whatever we could to survive. I learned many great lessons from my father, not the least of which was that you can fail at what you don’t want, so you might as well take a chance at doing something you love. – Jim Carrey

How many of you out there working crappy jobs that you hate resonate with the above quote? According to the latest statistics, 75% of people in the US hate their jobs. Not mildly dislike, not going through the motions, they literally hate their jobs. The results from Australia (where I live) aren’t much better. This all starts with the lack of help given to children at the end of school when they begin to make decisions about their career. We live in a world where there are generally only two pieces of advice one can receive as career advice, depending on what sort of family you grow up in and the school you go to. One camp will tell their kids to “follow your passion”. Unfortunately much of the time this is where the advice begins and ends – an entire career reduced to a short sound bite that actually gives very little information. The other camp are the pragmatists, people who guide their children or students based on the belief that the only reason to work is to make money, regardless of whether or not you actually like your job.

We fail our children when we give them career advice most of the time. We tell them when they’re young that they can do anything they set their mind to, but when they express the desire to be an actor (for example), the advice changes to “there’s no money in that, you need to go into finance or engineering”. It’s always assumed that the child can’t succeed and make it to the top, so there’s no point in trying. No wonder so many people are so pissed off about life. They are told to have dreams when they are a kid, and then those dreams are brutally cut down in the name of fear and pragmatism from their parents and teachers. There is no doubt that some people wind up in a job they don’t like for reasons that are entirely their own doing, but the reality is that they have also been left behind in some capacity. Maybe they never knew what their options were because the school had no guidance counsellor. Maybe the family history was to simply get a job, any job, and raise a family. Regardless, they are now one of the majority of people that hates going to work.

A huge part of the problem is the responsibility placed on children. At 16-18 years old, a person has no idea what the real world is like outside of school. Yet they are expected to work out something they want to do that not only pays well but makes the family look good too. Keeping up with the Joneses is alive and well when it comes to your child’s career. We certainly can’t have Billy being a mechanic, even if it’s what he wants to do. So they will also be pressured into college, because of course you have to go to college! This leaves many with a useless degree, average grades (because they aren’t really interested in the first place) and crippling debt before they even start work. They then need to go out and get a job, any job, so they can start to pay off that debt. And just like that, with that one decision their life has gone down the road which leads to them being one of the 75%.

It’s time we stopped just leaving our children to figure it all out on their own. It’s time to stop giving toxic advice based on our assumptions of the career they want or what we think they should do. It’s great to see organisations like YouSchool now getting traction and helping kids to achieve a career that they actually want. The word “dream” also needs to stop being seen as something stupid and not pragmatic. When someone dreams of a career doing something that they love, that’s not a far out concept and it shouldn’t be ridiculed or thought of as unrealistic. Every single pursuit in this world has someone doing it, so why shouldn’t your child be one of them?

When our children express interest in careers we may think are risky or don’t align with our values, we need to stop immediately blurting out that there aren’t job prospects. We need to stop judging. Parents seem to forget when offering their children advice that they haven’t been in that position for 20 years – considering how massively industries can change in 5 years, a parent really isn’t in a position to be offering advice about job prospects and what is or isn’t possible. Instead of immediately trying to guide our children into what we want and think is best (based on our own faulty assumptions), perhaps we should ask them to tell us about what they want to do? How about we ask them why they want to do that before we try and close the door on what is completely their choice. We need to be helping our children either find what they want to do or achieve it. We need to be helping them meet people, getting their foot in the door and giving them every chance of success in what they choose.

Where Career Advice Might Live in Our Life

Most of us have tripped into our careers. Even those who went into professions like law and accountancy tell of taking up the training as nothing else had happened for them.

Why is it that most of us have not experienced career advice? In schools it is usual that the careers teacher is doing that job as one part of a wider portfolio. And that role is often administrative as the expectation is that there is a library of information that students can access. In universities it is not much better. One of the UK’s top universities requires students to pre-book a session where the student then has 15 minutes help with their cv. It is probably useful advice. How useful is it in the context of career advising as we might want it?

In business schools the students invest significantly for their programmes. The full-time MBA is paid for by the student who has also the opportunity cost of not working. The benefit and risk issues is significant to them. The part-time MBAs at business schools are over 2 years and are usually sponsored by the employer of the student. There is less risk to the student; they continue to be paid and their job continues after their MBA has been completed.

In these business schools, careers advice and support is critical to the full-time student. The student needs to understand fully the level of support that they will get throughout their course as the course budget gets squeezed by the costs of all the other components of the programmes. On the part-time MBA, the employers are skeptical (scared?) of any career advice lest the students walk away after the MBA is completed.

The stages above are just 3 examples of where career advice is useful. Some people are fortunate that they have access to good advice. They may have a parent or parents who take an interest and who are able to encourage their offspring down an appropriate channel. Sometimes there is a teacher or a mentor who has specific experience that is helpful. For most, though, the career issue is not prevalent until it lurches into view at key moments – when one leaves school or university or when when has finished that Masters.

These examples are obvious as they are at “rite of passage” points in our lives or where we may have taken a key decision to invest in our career. What would happen if careers were more central to our learning experiences at these key stages?

The best careers advice is achieved by understanding the capabilities of an individual. In a school context this is often well understood by the teaching community as they are working with the students regularly in an academic, pastoral and ex curricula way. They are also measuring regularly to feedback to students and parents and also to relevant external bodies. The wherewithal to undertake good career advice is there. Most schools are not resourced to provide it.

The main issue seems to be that, as a society, we do not value careers as an important subject. Whether it is in schools or with people in work who are careering (rather than controlling) in their careers, the lack of value pertains. Some people do take proactive action and they broadly fall into 2 camps – they are in pain and distress because they have lost their jobs or they are bored and frustrated and know that they have to move out of what they are doing.

Taking care of your career is a lifelong responsibility. The earlier that we can value that notion and learn how to take care of it, the better it will be for the whole of one’s working life.