It is a question that we have all faced (and dreaded being asked) throughout our adolescent years, particularly if posed by a high-expecting parent or, worse still, a careers adviser. And it is a question that, do doubt, young people will continue to be asked for future generations to come. Whilst on the surface it may seem a fairly innocuous pondering, being both a careers adviser and a parent has led me recently to reflect on some of the implications behind it. And in my view this raises two main concerns:
1) Asking the question implies that every young person should know what they want to do, and that they should know this from a young age. Not knowing is therefore some kind of failure. The risk here is that young people without an answer will either feel defeated or they will feel the pressure to rush into (potentially unsuitable) choices just so that they fit in with expectations.
2) Asking the question also implies that the norm is for people to enter and stay within one career throughout the course of their working lifetime – that the journey they take through education, training and work will lead them in one direction, towards one specific career goal. It contradicts the true situation in which career is usually a non-linear journey, and challenges the normality of career change.
As we know all too well, making appropriate career choices is tricky business. It relies on a certain amount of self-awareness along with an awareness of the world of work. It is unrealistic to expect that young people should have either of these, let alone both. It is a growing concern to many of us, I’m sure, that younger clients are feeling the pressure to make important educational or career decisions earlier and earlier. The competitive job market, for example, means that the earlier a person can start building work experience in a relevant setting, the more likely they will be to enter the job market smoothly and successfully at the point when they are ready.
But self and work awareness at age 15 is vastly different to self and work awareness at 25 or even 45 years, so how can the majority of young people be expected to truly know what they want to do? Also, it can feel like we are facing an uphill battle to convince clients of all ages that career change is not only incredibly normal, but can be incredibly healthy.
Of course, we can’t stop people asking the question. But, as advisers we should be aware of the fact it is being asked and therefore understand the pressure that young people are under to have answers to it. We should be aware of the importance of helping them understand that career plans do change and that it is OK for this to happen; that they may need to be pragmatic and adaptable when it comes to work. And that it’s OK not to know yet what you want to do “when you grow up” as sometimes that question takes many years to answer. How many adults do we all know, after all, who are still trying to work it out?
What is paramount is that, as professionals, we are able to help equip clients with the skills they need to know how to make informed decisions with regards to themselves and the world of work. That we can help them to understand the importance of career planning and help them learn how to access the information that allows their plans to become a reality. Career is a journey after all, not a destination.