Career counsel

Should children as young as 11 be forced to choose a profession?

Megan Fisher first started thinking seriously about her future when her teacher in grade six launched into a unit on careers. “It was interesting most of the time, but in a way it also kind of bummed me out,” recalls Megan. “He said, ‘If you don’t know what you want to do in life, how are you going to do anything?’ I definitely started to feel some pressure about what path to take.”

Now in grade nine, the 14-year-old from Aurora, Ont., has struggled to narrow her broad range of interests down to three specific, albeit rather disparate areas: custom home building, journalism and cooking. Her mother, Jackie, an entrepreneur who never gave much thought to her own career options until she was 19 or 20, is concerned about the “job stress” her daughter is facing. “I was thinking, ‘Gee, she’s awfully young for that,’” says Jackie, who later realized there must be millions of similarly career-stressed kids when she learned the world’s bestselling career-planning book series came out in 2006 with a junior version: What Color Is Your Parachute For Teens: Discovering Yourself, Defining Your Future. So what’s driving schools to force preteens and young teens to choose a career, and are these kids really benefiting from limiting their options so soon?

Adults have always delighted in asking children: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” But there’s a rising trend in schools toward pushing students at younger and younger ages to narrow their career choices. To that end, kids as young as grade seven and eight are slogging through thick course manuals or complex online curricula, to select courses they think they’ll need and drop the ones they won’t. By grade 10, students in British Columbia must choose one of eight program streams, such as business and marketing, fitness and recreation, or humanities. In Newfoundland, beginning with the freshman grade-nine class of 2006, students must choose one of three “pathways to graduation.” The movement toward narrowing choices is continent-wide: Last year, Florida passed a bill requiring students to declare a major in high school.

“It’s a pretty pervasive trend and it’s putting a lot of pressure on children,” says Bryan Hiebert, a University of Calgary professor of applied psychology in the faculty of education with an expertise in career planning for youth. Hiebert says there’s nothing wrong with getting kids to think about career options — in fact, he’s in favour of it — but it’s something else entirely to push them into making choices before they’re ready.

Hiebert says the pressure on kids is coming from many directions, including a success-driven society, overeager schools and well-meaning parents anxious to secure their children’s futures. “When I speak to groups of parents, I ask them how many had an idea by grade 11 what they wanted to be, and all the hands go up,” Hiebert says. “Then I say, ‘Keep your hands up if that’s the career you’re in today.’ Out of 50 people, maybe two or three hands stay up.”

It’s unrealistic for young teens to plan on lifelong careers, Hiebert says, since the average Canadian changes jobs every three years and undergoes a major occupational shift every five years. Moreover, he adds, many jobs of 10 or 15 years ago no longer exist, such as in skilled manufacturing, while many jobs today are relatively new, such as web design. And with the pace of change continuing, Hiebert says it’s counterproductive for kids to narrow their sights at a young age: “Today it’s not about making the best choice or the right choice, but making choices that allow you to be flexible and adaptable. The primary focus of young people up to age 18 or 20 should be exploration.”

Still, the societal pressure for schools to become more job-oriented and relevant to today’s marketplace shows no signs of letting up. But there are dangers in assuming that job training can replace a good general education, says Susan Qadeer of Toronto, a personal and career counsellor of teens and young adults for more than 30 years. First, a student who excels in one area, and narrowly focuses on that, may be at a loss if that option suddenly vanishes. Qadeer says, “I’ve worked at universities where many of the 3,000 first-year science students wants to become a doctor. Maybe 70 of them will get into med school, which leaves quite a few frantically scurrying for alternatives.” Related fields, such as health promotion, may be closed to them if they haven’t developed their writing skills.

Second, many students are academic late bloomers, discovering interests only after they’ve already dropped important courses. For instance, a teen who likes physical activity and risk-taking may focus on gym, only to discover later on that he wants to be a firefighter or a paramedic, but he’s already dropped the necessary chemistry or biology courses, which may be difficult to pick up later.

Third, some adolescents go through a rebellious period right when they’re forced to make these life-altering decisions. So a strong-willed, music-loving girl who underachieves in math to defy her parents may later find she needs number skills to get into audio engineering. Qadeer recommends that, wherever possible, all students should take math, science and English right through high school. “The more general the preparation,” she says, “the better prepared students are for life.”

Many provinces have mandated careers courses designed to help students learn about career options and the workplace — in Ontario, for instance, it’s compulsory in grade 10. But that offers just a taste. Qadeer suggests that information about careers be incorporated into every subject in the curriculum. For example, an art course, which may cover Canadian women artists, should also include information about art-related careers, such as computer animation or medical illustration.

It’s wise for parents to have ongoing conversations with their kids about careers. “But do it informally,” says Joanne Simpson, a psychotherapist and counsellor in Oakville, Ont., who offers career counselling for teens. “Too much information can be overwhelming for them and a source of stress.” So don’t overload kids with specs about qualifications and salaries for various careers, says Simpson, who is also a former teacher and guidance counsellor.

Help your kids, as well, to learn more about not just what kind of job they want, but what kind of life they may want, says Simpson. Are they happier indoors or out? Do they enjoy being on their own or with a group? Do they prefer developing free-flowing ideas or following a structure? Temperament is key. One child who loves drama may crave the thrill and uncertainty of an acting career, while another may prefer the security of being a drama teacher.

“It’s good for kids, even young kids, to be thinking about the choices they’ll make,” Simpson says. “But don’t panic! Help them see that the world is open to them, but only by understanding themselves better can they learn how they want to fit into it.” That rarely happens at 13.

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