Banned: What do you want to be when you leave school?

Look at the choice on offer!

What do you want to be when you’re older?:

It’s a question I regularly hear at options and parents evenings. It usually rears its head after I’ve just finished a talk to a hall full of parents all giving up their time to find out how they can best support their children.

It’s also a question which I think speaks deeply to how adults word and frame their interactions about careers with young people then influences not just the choice the young person makes, but how they make that choice.

Let’s break down what is happening there.

Usually it’s a fourteen or fifteen year old being asked the question. They’re neck high in the swamp of their KS4 qualifications with, if they are lucky, maybe a few weeks of experience in an actual workplace behind them. In front of them, stretching out like an endless ITV Saturday night schedule, are years upon years of a working life which, for many, will go beyond traditional retirement boundaries.

How do they answer that question?

They will know of some job titles. They will have seen the sort of work their close family do (although the number of students who couldn’t tell you what their dad does even though they live under the same roof is frightening) and might understand a few career areas from those experiences.

They could name jobs they have come into contact with in their daily lives; teachers, hairdressers and other personal and retail service occupations. Some of these roles they will come into regular contact with and so, as they have clearer idea of what that job actually involves, they will feel more comfortable including that as a viable option.

They will know of other, perhaps more enticing and exotic, occupations through media influences. The spike in interest from youngsters wanting to pursue careers in forensic science over the past decade is a phenomenon enough people believe in that there must be a kernel of truth to it. There are positives to this input as young minds are tempted to consider possibilities that they normally would not encounter in their circle of movement but negatives as well as these same minds think that working in an A&E means that you will be required to occasionally appear in a suit, reel off a list of medical jargon and then disappear off to the staff room to share lust laden glances with a sexy nurse who you’ve never had the courage to ask out. Or, in other words, fictional TV and film are terrible careers advisers.

And that’s it. For the vast majority of young people these are the main influences on the routes they would consider feasible and possible to them.

Now think of all that is missing from that view of the world of possible careers. These young people will have not the faintest idea of what a “Derma-pigmentation technician for permanent cosmetics” or a social media content editor, or a Quality manager at a FE College actually does. People won’t choose options they don’t know exist or pick options with massive scary unknowns.

What they are aware of amount to only a thin sliver of the sheer overwhelming possibilities open to them. It’s like going into Asda and picking your food for the week from only the first aisle. Except it’s not a week, it’s forty plus years of a working life. And it’s not Asda, but you get my point.

So why are we asking them that question? It seems nonsensical to begin to make judgements based on such a limited amount of the total range of choice. Are we surprised that we have large numbers of children wanting to go into certain careers and a complete dearth of willing applicants in other areas?

What are the messages we are conveying to young people just by asking that question? It says that you should know what you want to do, you should have a plan by now and you’re a failure if you don’t. So we end up with panicked youngsters, believing they have to rush into a career ‘pathway’ onto a final destination job.

I think what I’m discussing here are my own experiences of seeing Gottfredson’s Theory of Circumscription & Compromise, particularly the Circumscription stage, in action. The mere act of asking ‘that’ question acts as a accelerant to the processes of Circumscription described in this document

on David Winter’s Careers in Theory blog. Possibilities are dismissed and routes are chosen to lead to a specific goal because an answer is requested.

So what can I do about this in my role? Two things:

  1. Acknowledge that it’s going to happen – through parents, other adults, demands of curriculum structure – young people will begin to make (maybe ill informed) plans that begin to determine priorities to them. To challenge these give time in IAG sessions to playing a devils advocate type role. Entice out of them justifications for their positions. And you might have to explain what the phrase “devils advocate” is as they won’t have a clue
  2. Get in there while these decisions are taking root with activities, events and trips that will begin to spread that narrow band of job knowledge to include a wider variety of roles. Show them the other aisles in Asda (you’re still following me on that one right?).

That last point begins to cover ground to do with school + employer engagement which is a big issue for all types of schools and one I want to devote a whole post to at some point. For now, I hope that we agree that it should happen lots and it should happen early.

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