As our kids end their high school careers, the constant question is “What’s next?” Not only are they asking this question themselves, it seems that everyone else is as well. As they answer the question “What are you going to do next year?” with what college they plan to attend, you can sometimes sense the apprehension. They know the next question: “What are you going to major in?” While it's often meant as a conversation starter, this seemingly innocuous question makes some teens squirm. Some 18-year-olds don’t know what they want to do for the rest of their lives and, in today’s world of four year degrees priced at six figures, not having a clear focus is sometimes seen as being irresponsible.
I disagree. I think it's even more acceptable to start college “undecided” today than when I was there 30 years ago. I understand that, especially with costs being disproportionately higher today, many parents are reluctant to fund four years of their teen “discovering himself” without a clear objective in mind, but I believe it is shortsighted to expect that such an objective can really be formulated at age 18.
Having worked with young adults for more than a decade, I also see the effects of parental and societal pressure on them in the form of depression, anxiety, and an overwhelming sense that they must succeed at all costs. For too many, failure at anything is simply not an option. The few students I have encountered without a clear answer to the common question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” seem to be distressed that they don’t yet have it all figured out.
Around the time my oldest entered college, I saw a sign in an airport: “The top 20 jobs 10 years from now have not even been invented yet.” This made me pause and gave me a new way to look at the purpose and methods of higher education. In the 10 years since, the truth in that statement has been obvious.
Those over 50 browsing job listings will likely see many positions that have them scratching their heads. What exactly is a “performance marketing wrangler” or a “course mentor?” Other job descriptions are easier to decipher, but somehow don’t seem like “real jobs.” Technology has, in some ways, complicated our lives, creating the need for positions such as social media manager, content marketer, influencer, mobile app developer, and virtual assistant. Technology moves at such a fast pace that it's likely that students graduating college may start jobs that were not needed or even conceived when they first walked onto campus as an undergrad.
Especially when you consider the ever-changing nature of business in the world today, it’s okay to be undecided. You don’t have to know at age 18 what you will do for the rest of your life. While some professions do require an early commitment (for example, careers in some fields such as teaching, nursing, and accounting involve certification tests before you can be employed), many of today’s jobs are flexible regarding what field of study you pursue. Even those planning on going to medical and law school have flexibility in what major they choose.
Up to 50 percent of students start college undecided. As one who started college with a clear path that changed dramatically after my first semester, in some ways I envy them. When I realized what I'd thought was my career path was not going to work with the life I discovered I wanted, I was lost. I had no reason to stick with the demanding major I'd chosen and had no idea what I wanted to study instead. I dabbled and ultimately found my way, but the interim was challenging. I felt like a failure.
I am seeing similar feelings in young adults today. Those who have a plan seem to have the next 10 years of their life planned out. Those who are undecided tend to mutter and avoid all discussion of college courses. When I ask what classes they are taking for fun, they look at me quizzically. The reply is generally that they have no room in their schedule for “fun” classes, they have to work on their major. Many of them seem to be hyper-focused on the goal and missing out on the wonderful learning opportunities in the interim.
Today, the pressure to have it all together is even greater. The level of anxiety and depression seen in teens and young adults has been on the rise; they seem to see uncertainty or the possibility of failure as a fatal character flaw. When college proves to not be “the best years of their lives,” many young adults assume that they are the problem. Too many are wasting the cherished opportunity of this age: to try something new with the possibility of failure (which is nature’s best teacher). We should encourage our kids to take the random class that “counts for nothing.” This may be the class that opens their eyes to new possibilities, that helps them find their place in the world, or at least provides four stress-free hours of classroom instruction.
This is the time they should be taking chances, stretching to see how far they can reach, and learning how to pick themselves up when they fall. Allowing them the luxury to explore new interests without the pressure of committing to a single topic not only reduces stress, it can also give them confidence to try new things. After all, isn’t that how the innovators of the world get started?
It takes a village!
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