Rushing Students to a Single Future Path Sells Them Short

Instead, we should teach young people the skills to plan and adapt.
Lives and careers are rarely lineal.

The COVID-19 pandemic has played a big role in changing when, where, and how we work. The idea of sticking with one company or industry for your entire life is no longer realistic or even desirable.

So why are young people under pressure to name a single career path instead of being supported to find their next step? In this climate of workplace flexibility, pressuring young people to rush into a single decision is linear thinking that needs to stop.

Learning to ask why rather than what
In our work with young people in schools, we see some common patterns.  Although almost every student has an initial answer about what their future career will be, in any group of students around 50% of them are naming the same careers as their classmates. Each class or school typically has a common ‘Top Five’ careers, capturing about 50% of students’ desired futures.

What’s crucial, however, is that these ‘Top Five’ lists can be different from school to school or region to region. This indicates that young people are passively absorbing ideas about their place in the world from the context around them. The risk is that they are limiting their aspirations. They may be trying to short-cut a difficult but critically important process by jumping to the easy or obvious (or socially approved) answers.

Pressure comes from many places. In many schools, there are ‘the kinds of things people like us aspire to’ – whether that’s surgery or surf lifesaving. Measuring school success by ATAR scores and university placements can drive these aspirations, as can community culture. But these pressures don’t prepare students to design their own life, and at the worst, they can limit students’ perceptions of what ‘someone like me’ can achieve.

If a student has a single clear career path in mind, it can be helpful to explore where that answer is coming from. Is it because they know what’s expected of them? Perhaps it’s all they’ve ever considered? Maybe it is the path of least resistance? Perhaps it’s the most socially acceptable option? Or maybe they haven’t found anything else?

Without the space and time it deserves in the curriculum, it falls to schools to be proactive and take the lead to broaden student exploration of learning and career options which are rapidly evolving.

Adults shouldn’t provide the answers
If you’re an educator integrating careers education into your program, don’t expect that you should ‘know the answer’ or be the source of all information about careers for your students. Teach them to find out for themselves.

Create a safe space for student exploration that enables open thinking and supports active exploration across all areas of career endeavour. Let young people go off-road a bit to explore all sorts of ideas for their future, figuring out who they are and what motivates them. Help them to be active agents in the exciting task of designing their own future, ideally before they’ve committed their identity to one linear idea.

As educators, we need to also examine our own beliefs and viewpoints around careers. How do we define success? Is it something to do with money or fame, or is it more about satisfaction in a life well-lived? What do you mean when you think of ‘a career’? Are you thinking of one single job or a whole life filled with learning and using different skills? What about unpaid roles? Do you value unpaid work, such as caring for others? And most importantly, how do these beliefs filter through to our conversations with students?

Practising planfulness
Professor Jim Bright refers to the valuable skills of making, revising, adapting, copying, abandoning, and revisiting plans as ‘planfulness’.

So, students should know a general direction and have the skills to take the next steps. It’s highly likely that your students will get knocked off course at some point, maybe in small ways, maybe fundamentally. The most important thing is that they have the skills required to adapt and come up with a new plan.

Show young people that even their biggest role models have had ups, downs and knockbacks throughout their careers. Be open about changes in your own career and any ideas you might once have held about careers that you discarded along the way. This models authentic skills in future-building: making choices, overcoming obstacles, revising and learning about what motivates you and the types of environments you want to work in. It shows that people grow, learn and change in their careers, taking some of the anxiety away from ‘getting it right’ at the moment when you leave school.

The future looks scary, but it doesn’t have to be
In the face of a constantly adapting world, it can be easy for students to feel apprehensive about the future. But there’s a lot to be excited about! The future of work offers more flexibility and different kinds of opportunities to those who design their own career.

Through all the forecasts and fog, we can be certain of a few things about the future of work, because they are happening already.

The shift towards remote working and fluid work schedules gives younger generations more flexibility than ever before. They can travel while working and explore places that formerly would have been off the cards thanks to the limitations of a 9–5 commute. Or they can remain in their community without their options being limited to local industry and opportunities. The key is that they can make decisions about the life they want to lead, and how and where a career fits into the mix that is their life.

A new report by the Australian Government’s National Skills Commission in January 2022 showed that the most important and rapidly growing skills needed over the coming years include the very human abilities of care, communication, and cognition. The robots aren’t taking over just yet, nor will they. Jobs for people will shift into new areas and new roles that will be helped by technology, rather than in opposition to it.

As educators, many of us have worked in a field with strongly defined linear progression. No wonder we press students into choosing ‘a single career’. But perhaps we need to train them for ‘planfulness’ – the capacity to develop, make choices, and have agency over your own life. Whatever the future holds, we know it’s not linear. This shouldn’t be scary. On the contrary, it’s a brilliant opportunity for a young person to do many things with their one precious life.