Here are just some of the different ways parents can help their children explore future career options and get on the right career path.

When career decisions are left to the end of the schooling years, career conversations can feel rushed, under-explored or loaded with anxiety. Young people who are used to structured learning may feel that their understanding of this area is underdone and they are largely left to their own devices about how much thought goes into planning their future.

When it comes to these conversations, parents often unconsciously influence their child’s future career choices. This mainly comes from the desire to see their children thrive and prosper in ways that might have eluded them, or to see their kids reap the benefits of the path they have cleared for them through hard work, or a sense that their kids may be too idealistic and not savvy enough to make informed choices.

It is important to consider the psychological impact this form of pressure has on children, and how important it is for parents to understand the influence they have on their children’s career paths and ultimately, long-term happiness.

Getting on the right career path starts with exploring

Here are just some of the different ways parents can help their children explore future career options. It is all about the importance of empowering students to open their eyes to the broad range of careers that are available to them and supporting the process of exploration.

1. Start early and cultivate curiosity

Many specialists are calling for exploration and conversations about the future to begin earlier, in the primary years. Start early, integrate it across learning areas, talk about futures often.

Set off in the spirit of play. Encourage creative curiosity by setting off on a journey together. 

  • How do people write funny TV shows?
  • Who decides what colours cars can be?
  • Who comes up with the ads on YouTube?
  • How do you get to be a football manager?

Exploring the wide world of work will take your children everywhere, from the tip-top of the highest mountain, to the deepest smelly sewer tunnel.

Let them go anywhere, let them find the weirdest job, the most unconventional job and learn to see the invisible jobs all around them in the world . . .

2. Explore far and wide when it comes to career choices 

We all know from research and experience that, in their play, very young children try out different roles based on what they see in the world. They’re trying on adult roles for size as they have done since they could first walk and talk. 

Young children absorb and process influences that limit their perceived future options. Their idea about what could be a good career for them, rather than expanding as they get older, often narrows.

In 2020, the OECD Education and Skills unit released their in-depth analysis of a huge dataset of over half a million responses from 15-year-olds in over 70 countries around the world (including Australia). Overwhelmingly, they found that teenagers’ aspirations are narrow and limited.

About 50 per cent of 15-year-olds in the data aspire to the top 10 occupations. The list of top 10 occupations has not changed significantly in 20 years. BECOME Education’s data shows that Australian teenagers’ aspirations can be even more concentrated: Around 50 per cent of Year 8s from any single school aspire to just five popular careers. Many of these are the tried and tested “good jobs”, which will get nods of approval from parents and feel like the right answer.

In conversations with your child, it is important to promote the idea that the appeal of these “tried and true” paths doesn’t have to preclude looking at less foregrounded options.

3. Forget the answer, focus on the process

It’s important to support the process rather than aim for an answer, particularly for children in their younger years. Focus on making room for curiosity to extend or reshape entrenched expectations. A new answer may emerge or the reasons for the existing one may become clearer.

Parents do not need to know it all but do need to stop asking “What do you want to be?” and rather focus on the process. The answers will take care of themselves and very often, it won’t be a single answer for life but rather a first next step.

4. Develop confidence to build aspirations from the inside out

Aspirations can be very different for people from different backgrounds and places. Not only are demographics at play: a whole world of influences shapes children’s conceptions of what “someone like me” can or should be, from social, family, community and cultural expectations to media stereotypes and the social value of certain careers (footballer, YouTuber, rockstar).

Encourage your child to think critically and define success for themselves. Who do they want to be in life and how do they want their life to be? This freedom and permission to design a future that excites them is a powerful primer for getting them to engage with this thinking beyond a surface level. Evidence shows it also engages them with their learning at school as they realise that it directly relates to the options and pathways which will be open to them for their future. 

5. Don’t do the work for them

We define career as the journey through life, learning and work. It’s life-wide and lifelong. It’s likely to involve a lot of changes and course adjustments in each person’s life. This requires great career management skills. From deep thinking about your options to the very practical side of making things happen. As parents it can be tempting to shepherd the whole process, smoothing out any bumps for them along the way. If we do that we risk making our children less confident or capable in their decision-making and less prepared for their future. Things that we might find easy as adults such as making a business phone call or booking an appointment with the careers advisor can be a huge challenge for young people but one that they must learn to deal with! Make sure they know they’re in the driver’s seat for their life.

6. Watch out for shallow thinking

One of the simplest and most powerful conversations to have with your child is to ask them what’s the “why” behind their ideas (revenge perhaps for the endless “whys” when they were a toddler!). Encourage them to ask their own “why” when decision-making. By instilling this mindset, you are placing them in the driver’s seat. And if the answer is “because you said it would be a good job for me” or “because it sounds fun”, you need to back up to the point above about building aspirations from the inside.

7. Accept that as careers change so too should careers education

Careers aren’t linear and it feels as if the future is even more uncertain in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Approaches to what actually constitutes a career have changed rapidly. The workforce has become increasingly diversified, with evolving roles and mid-career shifts. Many people are thriving by developing revenue streams from complementary or even divergent strengths and interests.

Many young people may happily gravitate toward a structured and linear career path. However, other students may feel constricted by a conventional path when their interests overlap a number of disciplines. 

Putting them in the driver’s seat of their career path

It’s important to be ready for opportunity when it strikes. By putting students in the driver’s seat from an early age and giving them agency over their own future, young people are more resilient and hopeful about the challenges and opportunities life will throw their way. 

A young person’s future is shaped by articulating and experimenting on a vision of the future that excites them right now. 

“What do you love to do?” and “What do you do well?” are two questions to get the conversation started with your child. As a parent, no-one knows your child better than you do. And you can also empower them early on by giving them powerful tools to develop their own voice in the career conversation.

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