When young people graduate, they are officially launched and become full-blown adults. Hopefully these two milestones occur simultaneously. But I keep reading about the stresses faced by young people in choosing their college or university career path. They demand greater support from mental health services to help them cope with the stress. How on earth is a teenager qualified to determine what he or she wants to do with the rest of their lives when they’re still coping with acne, learning the ins and outs of the opposite sex and micro-managing their social media profiles.
Even today, at the age of 70 and with more than 40 years of work experience behind me before I retired, if someone asked me what I would like to do with my life I’d be hard-pressed to come up with a satisfactory answer. Sure, I’d like to edit a leading-edge women’s magazine or write best-sellers that would make me rich. But how realistic are those goals? Expecting a young person to know the answer to that question can be soul-destroying. Pick a course of study that’s too restrictive and you’re denied flexibility. Pick the flexibility of an arts degree and what are you trained for? Not an easy choice.
What complicates this decision, in my opinion, is the misguided direction to “do what you love”. I think that misleads many young people into thinking that’s the key to success. It creates false hope because it’s not always possible to earn a living and support a family when all you really enjoy is playing video games, making music or taking selfies (the Kardashians being the exception to the rule). It’s not always practical or possible to earn a living doing what you love. Aptitude may be lacking. A favourite activity may not lend itself to a sound business case. Loving writing does not mean you’re going to be a successful author. In fact, few authors are able to support themselves with their writing. The same applies to acting, art, music and even technology. Although individuals with strong technological skills have a better chance, particularly if they know how to write code. Sometimes doing what you love must be relegated to a side hustle not the full-time job.
When baby boomers were finishing high school in the late sixties and early seventies, there was not as much emphasis on post-secondary education as there is today. Most of us were never asked “What do you want to be?”. We simply left home, moved to the big city and got a job with the telephone company or an insurance company. If we were career oriented, our options were teacher, nurse or secretary. Boomer guys could work for Ontario Hydro (which in retrospect would have been the best career choice if you consider benefits and pension), become a mechanic or get a job at General Motors. Once that was accomplished, we started assembling the components of what eventually became our lives. There was no great discourse, no years of scholastic preparation, no months of consultation with parents and guidance counselors and no particular stress involved. And since most of us did not go to university, no crushing student debt.
I also worry that extensive post-secondary education may lead some to naively believe that high-paying employment automatically follows. There are many people with several degrees and tens of thousands of dollars in student loans who are unemployable. Women’s Studies and Psychology are wonderful subjects to study but a tough fit in the world of business. While all this pressure on young people to pursue multiple degrees continues, there’s a serious shortage of electricians, plumbers and tradespeople. Not everyone is well-served by attending university and there should be greater encouragement for those who opt for alternative careers. We must remember that educational institutions are still businesses that need customers so further education accompanied by its attendant debt is encouraged.
When I was still in the corporate world and in a position to hire young people, I never looked at marks applicants got in school. Other qualities such as interpersonal skills, creativity, motivation, energy and resourcefulness were more valuable in the world of business. Most of what we needed to function in the working world (with the exception of doctors, nurses, teachers and other trained professionals) we learned on the job or developed through supplementary training throughout our working lives.
In a way baby boomers were lucky. We escaped the “What do you want to be” pressure. We were happy to just have a job and personified the “Bloom where you’re planted” ideology. Most often, we were happy to break free of the restrictions of living at home and get out on our own. We worked as receptionists, bank tellers, manual labourers, secretaries or salespeople when we finished school. From there, we ran with whatever we were dealt and many of us did very well in spite of our lack of education and degrees. I’m glad I’m not young anymore. I don’t think I could take the stress of deciding what I want to be. I’m so glad I’m old.