Why Is Career Decision-Making Still So Difficult?

Why is career decision-making so difficult?

November is Canada Career Month. This year, the theme is it’s possible. This month, CPC’s News Feed is featuring a series of posts that builds on that theme. We believe it’s possible to create a bright future. Maureen McCann shares some ideas for helping young people embark on their bright career paths — starting with how we can make career decision-making less of a challenge.

What do an Olympic gold medal diver, a lawyer, a political philosophy professor, and an HR professional all have in common? These are a few of the career paths I considered between the ages of 8-28. I was dead wrong about all four and, still, here I am loving my career. Recently, I’ve wondered why — with more tools and resources than ever before available to young people —  career decision-making is still so difficult?

What Makes Career Decision-Making Difficult for Young People?

It would be impossible to offer just one reason, but I’d like to share some of the challenges identified by seven amazing young women met through Plan International Canada’s Girls Belong Here program. As part of the program, CPC hosted an Innovation Hub — Paving the Way for Youth — where the participants gave us some valuable input about their experiences in the area of career decision-making.

In our discussion, the young women shared their thoughts and feelings about the pressure of choosing a field of study. They admitted they felt a certain heaviness, stress, anxiety, and fear that comes with making “the right choice.” And we (society, parents, teachers) aren’t making it any easier for them. In fact, the myth that students should choose one path to set them up for success in life is still alive and well.

“[Career development] is something we should be learning much earlier and working our way up to it by the time we’re prepared to get into the workforce,” said one of the participants.

Youth are provided with an overwhelming number of resources, but little-to-no footing, grounding, or experience on which to base decisions, so they rely heavily on parents, teachers, and mentors for advice and guidance. What these groups of people may not realize is how much influence they can have on a person’s interest in pursuing one career over another.

Another participant shared that she learned to listen to her inner guide. “[I learned to] not listen to other people and their opinions, but choose what’s right for me…” She trusts her inner guide to lead her to a career (or careers) that will make her happy because it is her personal decision.

Still, there is tremendous pressure from parents, teachers, and even friends to choose ONE field of interest as if choosing a career in high school is a singular event to which you are married for life.

With little to no experience in the world of work, how can we be placing so much pressure on young people to get it right?

Asking young people to choose one career path for the rest of their life is like:

  • Asking a 12 year old to choose a wine based on reading literature and having no experience tasting wines.
  • Asking a 15 year old to play a World Series Championship game having read all the statistics and data about baseball, but having never picked up a bat.
  • Asking an 18 year old to paint a masterpiece having read all about the great painters of the Renaissance, but having never placed a brush stroke on a canvas.

It’s in the experience that we learn to lean towards things we enjoy and away from things that spark no interest.

What Did the Survey Say?

Last month I conducted a survey on LinkedIn. I asked: Do you still work in the field you chose in high school?

Of the 4,000 people who answered the poll, just over 20% work in the field of study they chose when they were in high school.

Based on my conversations with young people, that’s not what they’re hearing. They’re hearing about the importance of getting the right credits, to get the right grades, to get into the right programs, or else!

Or else what?!

What came out of our Innovation Hub discussion was the realization that many of us do not have a direct career path. We dabble here and there  searching for the right blend of things that create a rewarding, fulfilling career.

Career development professionals are living proof of this. Very few of us started out as career professionals. Many of us came to this field as paraprofessionals.

How Can We Can Help?

We know there are many ways to travel from Ottawa to Toronto (you can travel direct, take the scenic route, the train, airline, bus, etc.). Just like a trip between cities, there are formal and informal education pathways to a great career! Think college, university, gap years, experiential, co-op. There’s job search, volunteering, entrepreneurship, thought leadership, networking, community experience, and exposure.

There’s no one path that suits everyone!

In Summary: How Do We Change the Career Decision-Making Narrative?

Making career decisions doesn’t have to be this challenging for young people. Let’s find ways to support them, encourage them, and empower them to follow what feels right.

Let’s spread the word so other youth worried about choosing “the right career” begin to realize that career development is about lifelong learning and not about staying true to a singular, binding decision made as a teenager.

Let’s remove the pressure from the pressure cooker, begin having conversations about discovery and exploration, and begin to examine, taste, and experience how amazing and wonderful the world of work can be. Let’s share more REAL stories about our career journeys instead of discussing “ideal” scenarios with those preparing to step into their own career paths.

Maureen McCann is a fierce advocate of career development, committed to preparing Canadians for the future of work. Founder of Promotion Career Solutions, she is one of Canada’s top executive résumé writers with 15-plus years’ experience teaching, mentoring, and facilitating career development. She is a senior board advisor to Career Professionals of Canada and an active member of both the Canadian Council for Career Development Outreach & Advocacy Committee and the Canadian Career Development Foundation’s National Stakeholder Committee.

Photo by ximagination on 123RF

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What a wonderful read, Maureen! Career development is about lifelong learning and it is ever-evolving. As we learn we make new career decisions and embark on new paths. This is what helps make our lives richer.

Thanks, Sharon. In my discussions with these young people, you could almost feel the anxiety and fear of making the wrong choice. It’s a good reminder to all of us that career development and decision-making are fluid. Meaning, should we misstep, we can (and should) take steps to correct ourselves.

I am guilty of being in a rush to make decisions and desparately wanting to make the right decisions. I think there are parallels with career decisions. In reality, it takes time to get information to make the right decision. Life is in continual change mode and the same is true for careers. We can advocate for making the best career decision possible with information available…and be prepared for change. Thank you for this thoughtful article.

Thanks, Barb. Your point about life and careers being a continuum is a good one. It reminds me of this beautiful Alan Watts quotation:

“We thought of life by analogy with a journey, a pilgrimage, which had a serious purpose at the end, and the thing was to get to that end, success or whatever it is, maybe heaven after you’re dead. But we missed the point the whole way along. It was a musical thing and you were supposed to sing or to dance while the music was being played.”

Alan Watts.png

 I am guilty of pressurizing my young adult son to pursue college/university education hereafter, he dropped out and am at lost for not listening to his views. He says education doesn’t always lead to success. True in some ways! There a lot of graduates unemployed, this is an eye opener!
Thank you

We are all learning, Theresa.

Your son is lucky to have such a supportive parent who wants what is best for him. Keep listening.

As a parent, I struggle to ‘let go’ of the idea that ‘I know best’. It has only been through reading, learning and listening that I am able to switch gears and let go of the idea that I could sway my teenager(s) one way or another. (And I fail to do it consistently).

We are all doing the best we can.

Sometimes family values influence our decisions as a parent.
I really appreciate. Thank you.

Thank you for this great article! This has been on my mind for a few years, since what you describe is exactly my experience. I’m hoping to be able to change the way youth look at career decision, one student at a time. I recently read something about “don’t think of the job title, think of the type of work”, and I really like that change of view.

Thanks, Emilie. Me too. The phrasing I use with people is this:
“Who is working on cool projects?” or
“Who is doing cool work?”
A colleague of mine uses this phrase:
“What problems do you want to solve?” (think world hunger, poverty, climate change, etc.)

These are all great cues to get people thinking less about titles, roles and positions and more about their motivation for doing the work.

Thanks for adding your voice to this post.

Thank you for the article. So many valuable points and solutions to this complex issue.
I feel that parents need to be educated more on career planning as they are primary influencers and are behind on how to guide their children. When I taught a career planning workshop for youth, I started with the comment, “Forget all the advice on what you should be doing for a career, even what your parents have said, and let’s start from scratch, with the one requirement to be true to yourself, your interests and values.” I would always encourage youth to take their time and to be ok with changing their minds as they gathered more information from life experience, networking, and other avenues of resources.

We certainly want what’s best for our kids. There’s no doubt about that.

I know my baby boomer parents and teachers offered me career advice they had received (stay in school, get a good-paying job, work hard and you’ll do well in life). And they did so because they loved me and wanted what was best for me.

I’d love it if parents and teachers were able to offer top-notch career advice to everyone but I see the same career advice I received 30+ years ago given to my kids. While all our intentions are good, many of us (parents, teachers, schools) simply aren’t keeping up-to-date with the world of work.

But as we know, things change. And to paraphrase Maya Angelou “When we know better, we do better.”