I’m going to take a shot in the dark. If you are in your late 20s or older, you are likely working a different job than you did when you graduated. Maybe you are in the same organization, but your title and responsibilities have changed. But, on the other hand, if you are older, say forty and up, you are likely doing something you couldn’t have dreamed of doing when you were in school.
How many of us know someone who graduated from biology and now works in the audit department. Or someone who graduated as an electrician and is now a founder or CEO of a business. The data is in. The average adult will have 12 jobs throughout their lifetime. The days of staying in one position in the same company have long passed.
In just the past few weeks, I’ve spoken to several friends who told me their stories of their career twists and turns. Stories of gap years, multiple roles, voluntary and involuntary time off work, the contemplation of solopreneurship, going back to school, and everything in between. So if getting a job and staying in it for your career has passed, why are we still asking our children, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” If the Great Resignation has taught us anything, it is that we need to retire that question. Just as our jobs do not define the person we are or will be, neither does our degree. That is the message we need to be providing our kids.
The pressure kids are under early on to figure everything out is not sustainable. So many teens feel this intense pressure to get into the best schools, know what program they have to get into, max out on extra-curricular activities, and have every step of the next fifty years planned out. Combine that pressure with all the uncertainty the last few years have brought, and I think this is too much to ask of our young people.
Ask most adults in their 30’s, 40’s, or 50’s what they want to be when they grow up, and they will jokingly admit that they are all still trying to figure it out. I know I am. So if adults, with all the wisdom of hindsight, are still figuring out our professional lives, why would we expect a teenager to know better?
And that pressure is causing massive problems to young people’s mental and financial health.
The Mental and Financial Burden
Most of us are aware of the student loan crisis. Student Loans in the US total more than $1.7 Trillion. That is a thirteen-digit number, thirteen! That amount is unbelievably high. Even with the recent debate over student loan forgiveness that crisis will likely get worse. In the short term interest rate, hikes will raise the cost of loans. And debt forgiveness does nothing to address the root cause of the problem, the growing cost of higher education.
Managing massive student loans is a heavy burden to start your adult life. That burden is even harder to carry for those who don’t finish their degree. Now they have the loans without the benefit of the credentials.
That debt burden is causing young people to put off major life decisions like getting married, having kids, or buying their first homes. It is also forcing them to make decisions that impact their short and long-term financial well-being. They are putting off building an emergency fund or saving for retirement. And those sacrifices don’t even take into account the feelings of stress, anxiety and depression that can come with adding a mortgage size payment to your budget before you have a house or a job.
Reframing The Question
I hope we can help motivate more students and reduce the overall stress levels if we start to reframe post-secondary education. The degree you choose will not define the rest of your life! Many adults learn this after years in the workforce. But it is not the messaging we give to our children when we ask them, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
Earning a degree gives you a foot in the door. It is your opening move in the chess game of your professional career. Once you have that first job, you can course-correct if necessary. Change roles, change companies, change careers altogether. I think this reframing could take some of the stress off our young adults and give them the motivation to finish their first degrees.
My First Degree
I floundered in my first years of university. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do when I started my degree. My dedication to the degree was so low that I was kicked out of my program. Fortunately, I have that gene that gets motivated once someone tells me I can’t do something. Being kicked out of my engineering degree was the motivation I needed to get my grades up, get back in the program and earn my degree.
But the funny thing is, even when I was motivated to graduate, I knew my degree was not the line of work I would want to do. I knew that the degree would only be a means to an end. I knew that because we were in the middle of the dot com bubble and engineers were in demand.
What I “knew” turned out to be a bust once the bubble burst, but I was still valuable because of the skills I had picked up on my education journey. Those skills led to my first job out of university and also gave me insight into what I did and did not want to do going forward.
A New Better Question
I think it is time we change up our question. Again, it goes back to my desire for us to speak to our kids with more intention when it comes to money matters. Instead of asking “what do you want to do with the rest of your life?” A question that is daunting to most adults. Let’s ask, “What is something you can imagine doing for the next five years?”
Yes, just five years. Five years is enough time to earn a degree and give a career a shot. Five years is also a little more than the average amount of time most adults stay in any one job. Phrasing the question this way gives our kids a bit of an out. Dedicate yourself to this task for five years. If you don’t like it after five years, you will still have the degree and maybe even some work experience. You might even have something more valuable than either of those. You may learn what you don’t want to do.
Don’t have our children try to think about what they could do for the next 50 years. That time horizon is just too long; chances are almost no one will do the same thing for that long anyway. So let’s ask them, what interests you? What is something that interests you enough that you could stick with it for five years? Even if it gets hard, you have enough interest to stick with the good and the bad for five years.
I hope that by asking the question this way, we can help focus and motivate our kids. Motivate them without putting too much pressure on them. And hopefully, that will help to get more of them into the workforce and on to their first, second or third careers.