Saturday, 23 May 2015

Teenagers and the Career Minefield

I woke up at 4.15 this morning having worked through a very strange dream. I was trying to give careers advice to a young man who plainly didn’t want it. He’s probably about 22 now and in the cold light of day, I have no idea what he might be doing, but in my dream it was his mother who wanted me to talk to him.

In my dream, the conversation went something like this;

“Are you working, Tom?”
“Do you have a car of your own?”
“Do you like your job?”
“Na. Hate it.”

And dream-me thought, what’s the problem?
Dream-me said to his mother, “He’s perfectly fine.”

As far as I could see, the major booby wasn’t that he hated his job, because presumably he still kept going there every day to fund his car. No, the major booby would be that he still lived at home. But apart from that, in the walls of my dream, he really was fine.

This dream is still reverberating around my brain hours later.

Because it’s just not me. 
The real me wouldn't think he was fine at all!

I worked in a Careers Department of a college for enough years to know what’s available to young people when they spew out of the education system and nowadays it’s heaps more than I was offered. For me in 1980’s England I  worked hard at school, enjoyed the slog of study and was the first in my family to go to university. But my path was dictated by the fact I didn’t actually know what I wanted out of life, just that I loved writing and fancied the idea of doing that for three more years.

So I did.

My university choice was a literal lottery. At school we were given half an hour in the careers department, which was a freezing cold caravan propped up on bricks. I went in with a good friend who had a cast iron plan and while she picked her science degree, I bit my lip and looked out of the window. We weren’t allowed to remove the brochures, there was no internet and universities hadn’t gone so far as to advertise on TV. Five minutes from the end, my friend poked me.

My life choices became smash and grab.

I knew I wanted to read English and had to pick four universities for the clearing form. So here goes;


Yep. I’m ashamed. My life path was dictated by the old favourite - alphabetical order.

I accepted the first unconditional offer after visiting Mid-Wales on a cold, wet, blustery August day. We drove five hours to get there and five hours home. I loved it. After seeing it, I wanted to be nowhere else on the planet. Aberystwyth it was.

I finished my degree and screeched to a halt.
What now?
I was back there in Indecision Town again, only this time there was no caravan.

I applied for jobs and lurched into the next thing.
For the next two decades I fell from one thing to another. Only one of them was ever a career choice and that was the first one, BC, Before Children.

I was forty-two when I started working as an archivist and forty-three when I started publishing my novels.

Now I’m doing what I love.

Bringing up my own children, I made several mistakes in helping them with their career choices.

1. I pushed them to find something.

What’s wrong with that? Well I didn’t find my thing until I was much older, so what made me think they would be any different? Yes, I wanted them to avoid the trials of cleaning jobs, waitressing jobs and other things I got trapped into by necessity. I didn’t insist they become doctors, lawyers or teachers but I wanted them to make a plan and stick to it. Not like me. 

I marched them around careers events and expos from a very young age, my mantra, the thing of horror movies.

“Don’t come out until you’ve picked a career!”

As adults they still do impressions of me, during which I am not laughing.

2. I thought anything was better than the Terrifying-Nothing.

The Terrifying-Nothing is the teenager who sits at home and plays play station all day with no idea where he or she wants to be in twenty years’ time. They have a go at several different things but finish nothing. They have no interest in doing much, other than sleeping lots, eating lots and disappearing out with friends. The problem is that none of my children were this person. My husband is completely hyperactive and has passed that on to his offspring. None of them can sit for longer than a few hours without rattling, so why did I ever think this would be them? Growing up, we didn’t fund them; we couldn’t afford it. Pocket money would be instead of feeding them. So, they mowed lawns, made coffee, waited tables or cleaned other people’s houses.

The Terrifying-Nothing was a stupid fear. It would never be my reality.

3. 18 is no age to be choosing a future.

At 18, I was still trying to pluck up the courage to go to town on the bus. New things have always sent me into a spin. Yet it’s the very age at which we expect our children to make incredibly hard life choices and stick to them. It worked out ok for me, but that was luck and the divine hand of God, who surely must have switched Aberystwyth with Aberdeen that day. Some sloppy kid put the brochures back out of order and I fell for it. 

In the New Zealand education system, subject choices begin narrowing at 16, when lessons get harder and students can’t take as many. By the last year of school, they’re already locked into a narrow path and half of them don’t realise it. They took all the arts subjects from Year 11 because they were easier, but now they want to be a vet. Ain’t gonna happen, sorry. Well, not without a lot of bridging courses and blood, sweat and tears, while the other candidates swan past clutching the right subjects. It can happen, but it’s harder.

4. U-turns are fine.

My life is full of U-turns, but at the time, I saw them as jobs and salaries and ways to contribute to the groaning financial requirements of four children and a husband, who provides without complaint and always has. I’ve worked in law enforcement, call centres, cleaned toilets, been an out-of-hours answering service for a local council, waited on tables, poured pints, cared for children with disabilities, taught special needs children English, dished out careers booklets and played with old photos. And written and published novels. I’ve been hungry, but I haven’t completely starved yet. It could come. I’m a realist.

Perhaps my problem was in NOT wanting my children to be like me. I wish I’d found my mojo at 18, then I could have spent the last 27 years doing that and completely skipped something else (please God expunge the call centre horror from my life.) But those experiences are all valid. They must be because I write about them in my novels. I am them and they are now me.

I went to a talk by an emerging leader, who I remembered being 18 and scared of the future. I pushed a university brochure into his hands back then and he seized it with white knuckles and graduated 3 years later. By the time I met him, he was off to Africa, had dumped the degree he managed to finish and thumbed his nose at the numerous job offers. He was doing a U-turn. And terrified all over again.

I was horrified. I could hardly sit in my seat. What a waste of tuition fees, loans, study and heartache. What would he do? Where would he go? How would he pay for it?

I just Googled him. Phew! He’s fine. He’s doing exciting stuff and I’ll follow him on Twitter along with the millions of others because he’s actually very interesting. He doesn’t look starving but if I notice him get thin, I could send him anonymous care packages to assuage my guilt for his wrong career choices.

5. It’s not about me.

It’s about them. Honestly.

If there’s a fear of them hanging around your home indefinitely, living off the fat of your land, then make it clear it ain’t gonna happen. Only sick people stay in bed in my house all day and perhaps it’s time to go flatting. My sister and I were out by 18, living independently of my parents and I’m a firm believer that they shouldn’t still be hanging around my house on a permanent basis much after that. We don’t do them any favours thinking food is free and the clothes fairy is real. We just set them up for failure later. Now my children are gone, I love sending parcels filled with goodies, the odd bank transfer and listening to their news. They’re beautiful and independent and I’m proud of them. Sometimes they don’t really start their journey until they’re out from under our authority. It’s a big scary world out there, but it’s much scarier through the window.

Sometimes we keep them stuck without meaning to, through expectation,  fear and kindness.

So the upshot of my dream was that the woman’s son was fine. He needed to get out of her house, but he would find his mojo and ride off into the sunset. He would do U-turns but hopefully nobody would die. He would cause her sleepless nights and one day make her proud. It was a valuable insight for me, the eternal planner, perpetual worrier and anticipator of dreadful things.

If they get to old age having supported their families, done a good day’s work and paid their way, what more can we ask? If they had their aha moment and found their mojo at least once in their lifetime, hallelujah! 

If they're still hanging around you, draining your resources, filling your stomach with that uncomfortable sense of foreboding and pushing their twentieth birthday, then perhaps you're the problem. I know it's harsh, but so is life out in the big wide world. One day the clothes fairy will have arthritis and the food fairy will be on a pension. Drive and ambition do come from necessity after all.  Get them out there, making their mistakes and doing their U-turns. Applaud from the sidelines and remember, they'll be fine.

#lifechoices #teens #career