Sixteen-year-old Olivia sat in my therapy office riddled with anxiety because she didn’t know what she wanted to do for the rest of her life. “What’s the urgency?” I asked. She looked at me as if the answer were obvious. The urgency, Olivia explained, was that without knowing what she wanted to do, she couldn’t pick her college major. “But you’re only a sophomore in high school,” I said, cautiously. Unimpressed with my remark, Olivia proceeded to roll out a scenario in which equivocating about majors meant you’re as good as unemployed, if not homeless.
Part of Olivia’s urgency came from her own temperament and ambitiousness. Much of it, however, came from the exhortations by her parents and teachers and guidance counselors to hurry up and figure out her future. Setting aside for a moment the fact that about 30 percent of college students change their majors before graduating, it seems to me these efforts to rig our children’s futures in favor of assured gainful employment are creating a new monster. Olivia is one of an increasing number of kids over the last couple of years telling me about the pressures they feel to either choose a career path before they’re ready to do so, or abandon their beloved choices for the sake of practicality.
The path to college is littered with these “impractical” choices—things like fashion design, photography, dance, creative writing, music engineering. “Do you know how hard it is to make a living as a dancer?!” mothers challenge their daughters. Many do know, but those who don’t will learn quickly; nobody studies the arts for long before being pummeled with this discouraging advisory. Maybe a better question for parents to ask is: “Are you prepared to work very hard for something you love, and find ways to stay afloat while seeing how far you can take it?”
Kids change their minds about careers while in college because, ideally, they allow themselves to see a bigger and more differentiated world. Equally important, they see a bigger and more differentiated self. At its extreme, imploring kids to pick early and pick “right” (the “sensible shoe” equivalent of career choice) turns college into little more than a dressed-up trade school. This is no knock on a trade school education. It’s a knock on using a classic liberal arts education, which has a distinct purpose, to prepare students for a single job or career rather than inviting exploration of the humanities and facilitate discovery.
Besides, the idea of one major and one career is becoming outdated; job descriptions now are more fluid, demanding skills of adaptation at least as much as content-based expertise. So do many tasks of young adulthood. Before launching them from home, most parents are pretty good at making sure their children can wake up on their own and make their own appointments. But real autonomy requires more than the ability to navigate the day. It relies upon higher-order thinking and emotional skills, one of which is the ability to tolerate ambiguity and its associated anxiety, until a clear picture emerges. Pressing kids to make decisions about majors and careers before they are ready robs them of the opportunity to build this mental muscle and take advantage of all that our post-secondary educational system can offer.
Moreover, these kids get sold an illusion — that making all the right choices is the best means of escaping the anxiety of a future unknown. It’s not. As too many of us know, you can make a whole bunch of good decisions and still end up in a place you never expected to be. Illness, job loss, or divorce can make mincemeat out of the best of plans.
What should we tell our kids instead? How about this: that their lives are rich with possibility, and some of the bigger questions they’ll face will involve balancing their need for security with a respect for whatever it is that puts a smile on their face. Kids raised to tackle life’s uncertainties by erecting lives in which little is left to chance don’t get to discover all that the world has to offer, nor all they could offer the world.
In contrast, kids who are raised to feel confident in their ability to manage well enough when things don’t work out as expected have been given a huge leg up on life. Undaunted by a shuffled deck, resilient and versatile, these young adults can more easily avail themselves of myriad opportunities their less adaptable peers will want only to avoid. It’s a good example of how some of the best parenting we can do will be counterintuitive — as if it’s not complicated enough.