As high school seniors nationwide throw their mortarboards in celebration, some step into the future with a hazy sense of purpose, their majors and destinies “undeclared.” Others move forward with meticulously crafted blueprints, their college studies and career paths firmly plotted. And in some cases, those plans have been in the works since middle school or earlier.
We can hypothesize about the reasons we have started preparing children for careers sooner than in days past—parental jitters from the 2008 financial crisis, Common Core standards that emphasis career readiness, a desire to see students compete in the global marketplace. Regardless, the phenomenon of early career preparation is a reality, with children as young as elementary school learning about career options and touring universities. Many middle and high schools implement some form of the Career Cluster initiative, a program dedicated to sorting students into industry categories, from which they are guided into a career pathway.
Such direction can be a boon. Students develop ambition for careers of which they were previously ignorant. A professional focus can provide motivation to excel in school; rather than asking “why do I need to learn this?,” students have a clear reason always before them. They are well prepared to compete against others applying to similar college programs, because for many years, they have made choices—extracurricular activities, summer jobs, internships—that match their career goals.
At the same time, this early career prep might be contributing to the anxiety so many young people now face. John Thornton, a North Carolina youth pastor, wrote the following after a conversation about stress with middle and high school students:
The kids often used workplace lingo to describe their lives. One sixth-grader talked about a school assignment in which she had to develop a life plan that included her future career, which schools she should attend, and what she ought to major in at her chosen university. It was only later that I realized visualizing the future like this meant that every grade, every volunteer hour, every achievement or failure carried the weight of fulfilling that imagined future.
Joseph E. Davis, Research Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Virginia and Chair of the Picturing the Human Colloquy at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, expressed similar concerns in a recent interview. He said:
It is the child’s job to “find their passion” and then “live up to their potential.” But while no particular direction is given, there is the clear expectation of worldly success.… “You choose your schtick but darn it, you better be pretty good at it!” Perhaps not surprisingly, levels of anxiety and depression are off the charts for young people.
Davis held that as part of the push for students to own a calling from a young age, they are saddled with the expectation that they will devote massive amounts of time to fulfilling it. In another interview, he mentioned a 20-year-old student who, after asking him to write a letter of recommendation, gave him her resume. Davis said:
It was four single-spaced pages of accomplishments that began about in seventh grade. It was just incredible; these were national achievements.… It was an extreme example of where each activity of your life is being conducted with an eye to it being an accomplishment that could be put down on paper.… In some ways, you document your greatness.
There is undeniable merit to living deliberately, to giving time to that which facilitates one’s long-term goals. At the same time, there can be a sense among some students that failing to do all of this—not figuring out what you’re going to be, not taking the “right” classes or participating in enough extracurriculars or winning impressive awards—is a recipe for disaster.
In a culture in which it’s hard to get away from the early push to choose and prepare for a career, how can teachers help counteract the anxiety that can accompany this push? Here are some ideas:
Tell the stories of great men and women who changed their minds.
It is common to start on one path and then choose another! Harrison Ford was a carpenter for fifteen years before he embraced acting as his calling. Walt Disney started out as a journalist and was fired for his lack of good ideas. Vera Wang was a figure skater prior to her career as a fashion designer. Whoopi Goldberg worked in a funeral parlor before she was an actress. Brandon Stanton, the creator of “Humans of New York,” was a bond trader before he became a professional photographer. Jonah Peretti, the founder of Buzzfeed, majored in environmental studies and taught computer science prior to his publishing career. Ellen Degeneres shucked oysters, waited tables, and sold vacuum cleaners before she turned to comedy. Andrea Bocelli was a defense lawyer before he was a world-famous singer. The list goes on and on. And the point is this: It is not only okay to change direction, it is common, and many of the people we respect do just that.
Tell your own stories or those of people you know.
It’s not just famous people who change course. Maybe you or someone you know has this story! It’s helpful for children and teenagers to hear about the journeys of those who changed their majors, discovered new passions, shifted gears professionally, and landed on their feet.
Encourage students to keep their minds open and to value what matters.
Even if a young person has a clear vision for their future, there’s a lot to be said for trying new things. Some even argue that a “sampling period” (and the freedom to quit activities that don’t sustain interest) is crucial to discovering true passions. It’s also important to remember that who we are as people—kind or selfish, truthful or dishonest, hard working or lazy—is far more important than what we do for a living.
Equipped with resources about various career opportunities—and the message that it’s okay to change direction—students can make decisions and plans with courage. Both the decided and the undecided will know that they are far more than the sum of their accomplishments, and that the future is a hopeful, open-ended place.