High School Students Have No Way of Knowing What Career to Choose. Why Do We Make Them Do It Anyway?

High School Students Have No Way of Knowing What Career to Choose. Why Do We Make Them Do It Anyway?

We have a favorite reader demographic. And no, it’s not fellow personal-finance-slash-chicken enthusiasts, though they’re a damn close second!

It’s the Younglings. The sweet children of winter who live in the wild, welcoming woods of Tumblr. They are wise beyond their years, eager for our advice, and willing to politely overlook the old-ass pop cultural references they don’t understand.

Crying Native American man, Geocities, “fingerprints,” carrying no more than exactly 2,000 pounds of meat, the shoeing of George W. Bush, and Pogs, Pogs, Pogs!

A very frequent question we get from them concerns the choosing of a future career path. For high-school-age kids, there’s a lot of pressure to articulate some kind of plan for what you want to study, and how you’d like to translate that into a job. It’s appallingly weird that we would set such questions to fifteen-year-olds! Especially given all the ways that we as a society fail to help them find the answer.

But seriously, though: Pogs.

Y’all’s brains don’t work like that (yet)

Did you know that the human brain doesn’t finish developing until around age twenty-five? It’s true. At eighteen you may be old enough to die for your country, but Enterprise won’t let you within lunging distance of a Kia Sorento for another seven years! And there’s definitely a reason for that.

The frontal lobe of your brain governs many functions. Among them: the ability to infer future outcomes, weigh potential consequences, and override instinctual impulses. Myelin (also known as “white matter,” a.k.a your brain’s all natural, grass-fed, 100% organic electrical insulator) allows different areas of the brain to communicate quickly and thoroughly with each other. And myelin doesn’t fully coat the frontal lobe until halfway through your twenties.

Now you know why teens love doing irrational things, such as stabbing themselves and also stabbing others.

Stab stab stab stab

Given this, it’s hardly surprising that teens are heckin’ bamboozled by the pressure to choose a career path by high school’s end. Not only do they lack the life experiences necessary to know what’s out there and what they might like, but they lack critical brain structures that facilitate long-term planning.

Know-how? More like NO, HOW

Forty years ago, 60% of American high school students worked a summer job. Today that number has dropped by nearly half. And no, it’s not because millennials are lazy, fuck you very much. The number of young people who are neither employed nor pursuing full-time education has remained steady, and is about the same as other developed nations.

The more likely culprit is changing educational standards. Teens are staying in high school longer, going to college in far greater numbers, and taking triple the number of summer school classes they used to.

Other factors include the decline of entry-level jobs and the rise of unpaid internships.

This decline isn’t necessarily bad. Many adults feel a kind of nostalgia for the concept of the summer job. Some feel it’s inherently more character-building than additional studies. I don’t see evidence for that. But it does mean that young people are extremely likely to feel pressure to select a career path without ever having had the experience of, you know… working.

May I have work experience, please?

Schools do a pretty terrible job of career preparation

For many decades, academia has grown away from life skills, trade skills, and practical career training. It’s a rare American school that still offers instruction on topics like managing home finances, sewing, farming, medicine, business, or woodworking. The last decade or two has seen a steady erosion of fine arts and music programs as well.

Instead, curriculum has evolved to heavily favor English, science, math, social studies, and language. Study in these fields has sextupled since 1980.

There are two big, obvious reasons for why this shift is a problem.

Streamlined curriculum suffocates alternative modes of expression and success

There are lots of creative ways to teach every subject. The next generation of teachers has access to new research and techniques that move the classroom away from the traditional lecture structure.

That said, English, science, math, social studies, and language tend to require a lot of the same overlapping skills. You gotta sit quietly, follow instructions exactly, read alone, and memorize until your eyeballs cross.

Many of our society’s most brilliant contributors dropped out of school exactly because they didn’t like doing those things. What do Steve Jobs of Apple, Bill Gates and Paul Allen of Microsoft, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, and Michael Dell of Dell Technologies all have in common (besides the fact that they’re all white dudes)? Why, they all dropped out of college!

It’s great that some people are so focused and lucky that they drop out and end up a billionaire anyway. But I wonder… how many future innovators, inventors, and reformers never left school, and never realized their full potential contributions to the world as a result?

Collaboration, leadership, innovation, project management, hand-eye coordination, spacial reasoning, timing, balance, judgment, improvisation, debate, presentation, aesthetics, research, salesmanship, planning, caregiving, failure, rejection, recovery: These and many other key life skills aren’t given an adequate chance to develop in a curriculum that’s narrowly focused on only a few subjects. A student with dyslexia, or ADHD, or a bilingual education is going to have to work twice as hard to keep up in all of their classes as a result. And students may never have the chance to discover that they have an amazing aptitude in another area.

Most people only know that they like an activity if they’ve had a chance to try it

“I didn’t know what career I wanted to pursue, but I liked history in high school, so I studied history in college, and oh god, oh god, my debts are pounding at the door and I can’t hold them off with a goddamned history degree!”

Many millennials will find this a familiar situation.

Consider a couple of the most high-paying, in-demand careers right now: data scientists, pharmacists, financial planners, patent attorneys, hardware engineers, and software engineers. The market is thirsty for talented young candidates in these fields. And it makes sense given that healthcare, finance, and technology are among our largest and fastest-growing sectors. Yet almost no high school curriculum would even alert students that they have an interest in one of these fields, let alone actually prepare them for it.

There is absolutely a place in the world for people with history degrees. Piggy and I are both proud, card-carrying members of the Deeply-Indebted, Highly-Educated Older Millennials Making a Liberal Arts Degree Work Come Hell or High Water Club. IT’S A HUGE CLUB!

It's me!

And it’s true that through one subject, one can become connected to unexpected branching skills and career paths. An internship at a history museum might lead you—circuitously—to a rewarding career in event planning or business administration or education. But you’re just as likely to realize you hate it, or that there are too few jobs in your area, and regret you went into debt to study it.

Look at this list of the most objectively useless majors, and consider how many of them are continuations of classes you took in high school. People pursue what they’ve been given a chance to try. So wouldn’t it be nice to go into adulthood armed with more diverse experiences to inform your future career options?

Parents are highly biased when it comes to their kid’s career path

Lil’ kids don’t got much agency. Their parents choose almost all of the activities their children pursue until well into their teen years. Because adults are the ones with money and driver’s licenses and the aforementioned white matter.

When I was a kid, my parents signed me up for tons of classes: ballet, swimming, diving, tennis, golf, soccer, basketball, camping, horseback riding, Christian religion, singing, piano, theatre, and art.

A lot of people would consider me to be very lucky—and I wouldn’t call myself unlucky. I had parents who were trying to give me a range of interesting experiences to stimulate me and build character.

BUT. Notice anything about that list?

It’s pretty… well, white, isn’t it? And upper-class.

My parents cared a lot about appearances. Being members of the local country club and having a daughter enrolled in every class, was a piece of their efforts to define themselves as part of the town’s upper echelon. It was an extension of their social goals and identities. It wasn’t a reflection of how breathlessly happy I was every time I came home from another putting lesson.


I made zero lasting friends in any of those classes. If anything, I felt unspeakably stifled. I was always surrounded by people who were “just like me,” yet I never felt like I belonged. The sameness of everyone in the classes reinforced that there was something wrong about how different I felt from them. I only started to find my own identity when I had consistent exposure to people who weren’t like me.

Out of the hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars spent over the course of my childhood on various activities, I have a lingering interest in exactly two: horseback riding and art. And I didn’t like them for the reasons my parents hoped I would. I hated competing for saddleseat ribbons, and loved picking crusted smegma out of horse foreskins (yes, it’s a thing, look it up). Most of my strongest interests are traditionally masculine—or associated with being lower class. I didn’t discover those interests for decades, because they weren’t the interests my parents were trying to nourish in me.

I’m gonna shock you all by positing that nearly all parents unconsciously invite their egos into key parenting decisions. And that certainly extends to education. When parents read kids stories, show them movies, sign them up for lessons, introduce them to new people, and expose them to new situations, they reveal unspoken expectations for what their child will become.

My folks did do one thing right—they let me choose my own movies to rent from Blockbuster. Repeated viewings of She-Ra: The Secret of the Sword was the best possible education in gay culture a small town elementary school girl could hope for.


Is there a better way?

Increasing the diversity of relationships and experiences is a great way to raise a kid who knows what’s out there and what they like. But that’s advice for people getting ready to raise their own kids. What do we say to high-school-age kids who are asking “how the fuck do I choose a career path?” right now?

I have some ideas! And next week we’re going to cover them.

11 thoughts to “High School Students Have No Way of Knowing What Career to Choose. Why Do We Make Them Do It Anyway?”

  1. Those are salient points about career choice and teenagers. I made a pretty good living in chemical engineering only because my favorite high school math teacher’s son was one and I liked chemistry. Nobody in high school ever even suggested a career for me, guidance counsellors were not really invested in that sort of thing. It will be interesting to see, even for a nerd like me, what you have to say next post. This one was really engaging!

    1. Knowing adults with diverse skills, and getting the opportunity to hear them talk about their careers, is a great point that I didn’t even think to include! I’m from a small midwestern town with a Fortune 500 company headquartered smack in the middle of our cornfields. At least half of the adults in my life worked in extremely similar white collar roles at this one company. Probably more? So I’m not sure I really had that experience myself!

  2. We need a club for PF bloggers who love their chickens!!!

    ALL those skills you listed like project management, collaboration… learned NONE of those in formal education, it’s all been by fire on the job. And soft skills are so so so crucial. Less so when I was in journalism which was really quite solitary, but now I’ve been in a more standard office environment for a few years? It is all about those non technical skills and figuring out how to work with other human beings.

  3. I still own my Crystal Castle and She-Ra action figures. Secret of the Sword was a great movie.

    What I wanted to do coming out of high school is nothing like what I do now. Expecting a 17 year old to figure out the rest of their lives is illogical.

    1. RIGHT, LIKE, Adora’s backstory is the BEST! In a stunning Reverse Darth Vader, she starts out as the badass general leading the evil army, because she was kidnapped as a baby and raised by a gay robot skeleton and his raspy-voiced beard, but then experiences a moral crisis and immediately goes full throttle in the opposite direction, becoming the leader of the Rebellion… I get really mad when people call She-Ra a He-Man clone because she isn’t, she’s so much better.

  4. I don’t know if I’m with you, Kitty. We may agree. The problem is I’m an old fart and I have a tough time understanding Millennial talk. Anyway, I don’t like our K-12 business model. I’d like to see more educational entrepreneurs, more schools, and more choices for parents and children. And I’d like to see more schools based on a skills model rather than a diploma model. After all, why can’t a bright 17 year old leave lower education with a respected programming certification? Why does he or she have to drop $100k on higher education to get a similar credential? I look forward to your ideas.

    P.S. When I think of educational entrepreneurs, I think of people like you and Piggy. I wouldn’t send my kids to a school run by you guys, but we do need people like you to rattle the cage and challenge the status quo. Hail disruptors! A pox on the educational establishment!

    1. Hahahahaha, allow me to decode myself: it sounds like we’re in agreement. Too many kids are pushed into colleges not because they need the additional education, but because parents, teachers, and peers push them into it, and nobody talks up the alternatives. For most kids today, not going to college would be perceived as a failure. If I could go back in time, knowing everything I know now, I’d skip college and become an entrepreneur.

      A pox, a pox!

  5. “When parents read kids stories, show them movies, sign them up for lessons, introduce them to new people, and expose them to new situations, they reveal unspoken expectations for what their child will become.”

    It’s true! Because I know it’s true, I work hard at being as open as I can about my expectations for my kid to ourselves and to zir and to try and be open to a lot more than I can imagine: make enough money to support yourself and your desires, in any career that causes no harm to yourself or others, and be effin awesome at what you choose. I will admit to being totally Asian-immigrant in looking askance at the performing arts because as much as I love Ming Na, it’s hard for me to willingly say sure, kid, try out the horrible misogynistic machine that is Hollywood for a career, I’m cool with that. But I’m working on being cool with that or whatever choices ze makes if that’s what ze wants and can find a way to make it work.

    And I’ll have to do my best to keep up with the younguns to know what else is out there on the horizon as ze grows up.

    If nothing else, at least I’ve learned that one good way to get started is just to try things that you like and can build on – see what you like doing every day or can get good at, and keep an open mind.

  6. “Did you know that the human brain doesn’t finish developing until around age twenty-five?” My son’s psychologist told us that new research suggests this number might be closer to *35*.

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