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Career Choice and Diploma Despair

Do you know how much time you are likely to spend at work? One-third is not exactly correct since you do not work all your life. Most definitely, though, the number of hours you will have spent working by the time you retire equals 80 000. It is an impressive chunk of your life, and it is most likely that you want to spend them in relative peace with yourself, doing something you like, or at least do not hate. However, finding a job that you do not hate is not an easy thing, and it became more difficult when we received the right to make our own life choices. This right is the reason for the career choice issues that plague modern youngsters.

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Career choice problems may appear to be made up and exaggerated, especially since there are means of addressing them: career guidance, counseling, major change, and so on. Besides, it is a problem that has been born by an advantage that many in this world still do not have. However, the fact that this issue is encountered mostly by the people of the first world does not mean that it should be sneered at. Such a disdainful approach is capable of aggravating this issue.

A friend of mine (let’s call her Yasmine) had guided my thoughts to the issue of career choice and professional orientation: mostly, because I know that this bright and talented person had been questioning her life choice since before she made it. She has never been interested in economics, and she chose it mostly because it appears logical to look for money in the field that is concerned with it. At the very least, she knows what her understanding of success is measured with, and it is the high quality of life that is defined by the money she can earn. She has never been happy about the choice but she does not know what to choose instead, and she is oddly tolerant of the idea of spending time, effort, and money to get a profession that bores her to tears. “It’s OK,” she told me. “It’s nobody’s problem; just mine.” However, as time passes, I start to wonder about two things. First, is she the only one with this problem or would many students find themselves in her shoes? Second, is it nobody’s business indeed? Can this difficulty be disregarded as something irrelevant?

ACT, Inc. (the developer of the ACT college readiness assessment) can tell you that Yasmine is not the only one. The organization has been carrying out surveys on the college choices of modern students for several years. The results of the year 2014 presented by Nancy Rehling indicate that about 40% of college students were “very sure” about their major choice at the time. Another 45% were “fairly sure,” which is a different level of certainty, and 15% admitted not being sure at all. Apart from that, it was determined that wealthier students with more educated parents were more likely to be unsure, which once again proves that the issue is born of opportunity and freedom of choice. What is more, the major decision turned out to be poorly aligned with the students’ interests for 32% of them. Only 36% decided to take up a major that fit their interests quite well. In other words, one-third of the students had a major that was not interesting to them, and part of them must have belonged to the 85% of the students who were more or less sure about their career choices.

Everyone has seen these students, the adorable freshmen who look like fish out of the water and work hard not to yawn at a lesson that is particularly out of their sphere of interests. Soon they stop pretending to listen to the teacher and use their time more effectively: someone works on assignments, someone draws, and that one thinks that if he sits in the corner, no one sees that he is taking a nap. I do not blame him: he values his time and tries to manage it better, granted that his career choice makes it more difficult. It will become more unmanageable when he gets the job that bores him as much. How do you know that a person does not like his or her job? I picture someone looking tired even before the working day, irritable, snappish, and unwilling to work efficiently.

At worst it is someone with lifeless eyes and dark circles under their eyes: someone very much like Edward Norton from the Fight Club. Eight hours of boredom per workday are very likely to turn you into a dull person, bury your ambitions, and generally make you miserable. According to William MacAskill, unlucky employees are about to spend 80 000 hours like this unless they grow too sick and give up the job. Alternatively, they may also get fired: after all, a miserable worker is not an efficient one, especially when they are miserable because of the job. The business is not going to benefit from them, so it is more likely that it will search for someone else. We are living in a competitive world, and the chances of staying unemployed for female graduates amounted to 29% in 2014. With male ones, the number is somewhat lower (21%) as stated by the National Center for Education Statistics. In any case, the quarter of college graduates stayed unemployed in 2014. These statistics are not very inspiring.

The hateful jobs and unemployment contribute to the “diploma despair” that was described by Jackie Speier, a Calfornia congresswoman. They are recently graduated, with no job in the middle of the world economic crisis, no real understanding of what they are supposed to do now that they do not have a schedule to stick to for the first time in their life. At the same time, they have a diploma they do not know how to use and, possibly, never even wanted and a 25% chance of staying unemployed. “Welcome to the quarter-life crisis,” suggests Speier. Perhaps it will prepare them for the middle-life one.

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How does it happen? How has a favorite job turned into something from a fairy tale? One of the reasons for this problem is the drawback of the freedom of choice indeed; in particular, the challenge of making crucial career decisions at the age of about eighteen. Cecilia Simon, for example, blames the “dizzying” and growing number of opportunities that youngsters are faced with; according to her, it may become intimidating. Indeed, nowadays, girls do not have to choose between becoming a laundress and a seamstress, and boys have a greater number of options as well, which is confirmed by the abundance of majors they all can try. How do they make their decisions?

When we meet with Yasmine to ask her this question, she looks amused: mostly, by my choice of the interviewee and also by the topic. She is skeptical and calls career choice issues “childish,” but she admits that she has this problem and knows several other “childish” students personally. “We are an immature generation,” she insists. Yasmine confesses that, in her case, the career choice was mostly made to correspond to her mother’s idea of success. “Parents influence you,” she says. “And so do teachers, the media – especially the media. Friends, to an extent. It may be difficult to tell what you want, but you know for sure what your mother wants from you.”

Indeed, a study by Howard, Flanagan, Castine, and Walsh shows that family and social factors are among the key influences, the pressure of which children begin to recognize at the age of five. The authors do not consider it a danger: after all, our choices are going to be influenced by our environment. Still, they do point out that the bias produced and shared by the society can prohibit them from realizing what it is that they want and hurt a child’s career choice in the future. The immediate result is a lifetime of boredom, I would say, that begins in the college, but it is not the only outcome of this issue. Let us shift the focus a bit. When people torture themselves with hateful jobs, someone out there who would like this job or at least not hate it does not have it! Possibly, it is you. On the other hand, tomorrow you may need the services of an economist but end up stuck with a specialist who had spent his lessons trying to learn how to draw. Do you want to fall victim to someone’s immaturity?

We probably do not. So what can be done? Yasmine reluctantly brings up counseling and seems even more skeptical about it than the childish life choices issue. In reality, though, this intervention does seem appropriate for education: after all, it is supposed to prepare children for their future life, and their jobs will constitute about 80 000 of its hours. Career guidance “should be at the heart of education,” as was appropriately phrased by Tristram Hooley, but prioritizing it is not enough: it needs to be appropriate as well. For example, Cal Newport recalls that the typical advice he would receive from occupation advice boiled down to following your path and passion. Naturally, he jokes, “we all have a pre-existing passion.”

Similarly, Yasmine is not enthusiastic about school discussions and consultations. She does not believe that young children can realize what career advice is aimed at; it is too abstract for them, and they have no experience or context for its understanding. “It is not going to work unless you know that you need it, that you have a problem with it.” She does think that one needs to reach a certain age before making a proper career choice. This idea seems valid: the little experience that we have in college is still greater than what we have at school. At college, we are more mature, more self-aware. We can make better decisions, and we can decide to get help in making decisions! For example, what about Yasmine? She does know that she has the problem, does she plan to get some counseling? “No,” she laughs. Why? Because it is not a “real” problem.

Yasmine does not dwell much on the real problems but mentions famine and AIDS. She thinks that real problems are those concerned with war and starvation, not spoiled first-world children who are incapable of choosing the job of their dreams. However, is it really “childish” not to know what you want? In a way, but not the same way that Yasmine suggested. Of course, career choice issues can be explained by the age of the person who is making the decision. According to Liz Freedman, who is a student employment coordinator, younger students are often developmentally not ready to make a major or career decision. The pressure to make it nevertheless can result in hesitation, anxiety, hasty choices, and uninformed decisions that are not connected to the students’ interests. To avoid these outcomes, they need help: for example, consultations, counseling, workshops, and the prohibition of choosing a major before the second course as suggested by Freedman. In other words, Freedman is ready to deprive the students of their freedom of choice temporarily to contain the epidemic of wrong career decisions.

Restricting freedom is unlikely to be a solution, but what might lead us to one is the recognition of the problem and active encouragement for elder students to get help and learn more about themselves. “When one thinks of major problems in the world,” writes William MacAskill, “one thinks of HIV/AIDS, or gender inequality, or war.” No one considers the issues of hundreds of people who spend thousands of hours in a place they do not like, waste their effort, and waste their lives. It is a first-world problem, so we do not believe that it is a “real” one, and those who experience it remain certain that they are to blame, and there is nothing to change. However, there are things to be changed, and the first of them is probably this attitude.

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Freedman, L. (2013). The developmental disconnect in choosing a major: Why institutions should prohibit choice until second year. Web.

Hooley, T. (2013). Careers advice should be at the heart of education, not an afterthought. The Guardian. Web.

Howard, K., Flanagan, S., Castine, E., & Walsh, M. (2015). Perceived influences on the career choices of children and youth: an exploratory study. International Journal For Educational And Vocational Guidance, 15(2), 99-111. Web.

MacAskill, W. (2013). Replaceability, career choice, and making a difference. Ethical Theory And Moral Practice, 17(2), 269-283. Web.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2015). Employment rates of college graduates. The New York Times. Web.

Newport, C. (2012). Follow a career passion? Let it follow you. The New York Times. Web.

Rehling, N. (2014). Selecting a college major. Web.

Simon, C. (2012). Major decisions. The New York Times. Web.

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Speier, J. (2010). Jobless, indebted grads hit by ‘diploma despair’. Web.

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