Written by: Linda Evans, Executive Contributor
Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.
Dear parents of teens and young adults,
This is an open letter from a college career advisor. I've worked with thousands of your children in my decade of working in higher education at 5 universities with students from every group of majors (liberal arts, STEM, business, social work, pre-health). Many of them are brimming with anxiety and shame. I hate to break this to you, but you are often the source of their anxiety and shame because they feel they cannot meet your expectations. I spend considerable time correcting the beliefs and mindsets they learned from you. I’m not saying you should lower your expectations, but they should be based on current reality.
Look, I know you mean well. Of course, you want your children to have the utmost success and happiness in life! But your good intentions are sometimes misguided or outdated. What worked for your generation may not work for your Gen Z children, and what works for Gen Z will likely not work for their children. I want to help you debunk the myths about college and careers that are not true anymore and are not serving your children, assuming that you also want them to have authentically meaningful lives and not just stable jobs that will keep them from living rent-free in your basement.
From my years of experience working “in the trenches” with college students and constantly working on my own professional development by attending conferences, reading articles, viewing webinars, and consulting with colleagues, I have compiled some of the most common myths I deal with and the truths to counter them.
1. My child needs to get a college degree no matter what. Not all people learn well in a classroom setting through mostly listening, reading, and writing; some people learn best through practical and tactical training. Not all people desire an occupation that requires a college degree. A college degree alone does not guarantee gainful employment. Some employers, including large reputable tech companies, have eliminated the requirement of a college degree (or never needed them to begin with) and hire workers based on a narrow set of skills that can be obtained through vocational schools or boot camps. For example, there are a multitude of respectable jobs in the technical and medical fields that only require a certificate that can be earned at a community college in less than 2 years. (Check out these ideas) Forcing your child to complete college without consideration for their natural career interests or learning styles can prove to be a waste of everyone’s time and money. However, if your child is not sure of their interests and enjoys academic learning, college could be a perfect place for them to explore and test out career specializations.
2. High grades are the most important thing to focus on during college, and my child should only spend time on classes and extracurriculars that directly relate to a specific career field. Grades are just one of many factors employers look for in candidates. According to a 2020 study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), which conducts multiple studies each year, employers also look for extracurricular activities, compatibility of major, internship experience, leadership experience, and work experience in general. They want to hire well-rounded people who can balance multiple activities besides studying because real life is complex and demanding! Encourage your children to be involved in multiple enriching experiences beyond the college classroom. This is so important to students’ personal and career development that increasing numbers of universities have established new offices devoted to Experiential Learning to encourage and guide students to participate in community service, research, internships, and study abroad.
3. My child needs to determine their major, so they will know what they will do for "the rest of their lives" by the time they graduate from college. The times of getting a job at a company and working your way up for the next 4 decades in order to retire with a pension are becoming increasingly rare. We live in a “VUCA” environment, coined in 1987 by scholars at the U.S. Army War College. It stands for volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous - which is likely to give anyone great anxiety! According to a 2012 study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, only 27% of college graduates work in a field related to their major. Those are likely the ones whose desired occupation requires a straightforward major like accounting, electrical engineering, or elementary teaching. The vast majority study their area(s) of greatest interest, which is the path of greatest success because they are intrinsically motivated to persevere and excel.
4. My child needs to study one of the majors that lead to maximum job security and earning potential (i.e. business or engineering). There is no such thing as 100% job security, as the 2008 and COVID-19 Recessions have demonstrated. There are jobs with increasing demand, as indicated in the Occupational Outlook Handbook website maintained by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and there are jobs that are declining in demand due to technology such as artificial intelligence. A 2017 study by the U.S. Department of Education revealed that one-third of college students change their majors at least once; students in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) majors are more likely to change majors than non-STEM students. More and more employers are looking to hire college graduates who possess essential competencies rather than specific majors. So avoid worrying about your child’s choice of major and support their development of employers' most wanted competencies. Focus on encouraging them to pursue courses that provide the greatest rigor and fascination, which are the most likely to foster self-motivation and hard work towards meaningful goals.
5. My child will forever be unemployed or underemployed if they major in the humanities or social sciences (aka liberal arts). This is a short-sighted simplification. Yes, graduates in STEM earn more in their first job after college than graduates who majored in English, Psychology, or History. However, this 2019 New York Times article states that the earnings of liberal arts graduates tend to catch up and exceed that of STEM graduates by age 40. The two main reasons for this are STEM skills quickly become obsolete and liberal arts majors are more likely to go on to management positions. Of course, these are broad generalizations. Personal determination and adaptability, as well as unforeseeable market forces, are more important factors for career success and high salaries. Some of the most financially successful and famous professionals have a liberal arts degree, and they do not regret it. Here’s just one list of examples.
6. My child should be certain of what job title they are pursuing. Job titles are constantly evolving and are, thus, an ineffective way to plan career directions. Countless job titles have become obsolete and new job titles are being created every year as technology and world trends advance. Job availability at the time of graduation depends on market demand at the time and where your child is willing to live. More effective career directions could be determined by encouraging your child to answer the questions, “What problems do you want to help tackle in the world? What do you find endlessly fascinating to learn about? What strengths and skills would you like to use in your daily work?” Point your child to their university career counselors to explore these questions in depth.
7. My child’s levels of financial success and career prestige are a reflection of my success as a parent. This is a belief in many cultures that is deeply entrenched and difficult to dispel, one that assumes your children are mindless extensions of you with no ambitions, strengths, personality, or agency of their own. This kind of pressure and expectation on children can often lead to deep shame, frustration, dread, guilt, resentment, and confusion that keeps children from exploring and excelling in their careers of choice. Maybe you experienced this pressure from your parents and have accepted that this is just how things are, but each new generation is like a blank slate. I invite you to re-evaluate and perhaps re-define the sources of your satisfaction and fulfillment in parenting.
Thank you for reading this long letter and considering these points. I applaud you for being an involved and informed parent. Your children are blessed to have parents who care. I look forward to helping your children create meaningful and fulfilling careers and lives.
Linda Evans, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine
Linda Evans is a strengths-based career coach and personal branding expert. In 2011, she founded her virtual career coaching business, Launched by Linda, LLC. Her full-time career has been in higher education since 2012 and she currently works in Career Services at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. Linda has a B.A. in American Studies and a minor in Ballroom Dance from Brigham Young University, and an M.A. in Psychological Counseling from Columbia University. She is also a Gallup-Certified Strengths Coach, and has certificates in positive psychology and public speaking.