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Re-thinking the Career Conversation

“I don’t mind what you decide to do, I just want you to be happy.”

Have you found yourself saying this to your young adult, as part of the “What are you going to do after high school” discussion?

You mean well and REALLY want to help your young adult, but statements like this don’t actually help them. That’s because they know you DO care about what they decide to do as a career, because of the amount of time and energy you spend in discussing this issue, and they see your concern. Teenagers take a lot more notice than you think!

So, being real and honest about the career exploration process for your young adult is important, for many reasons.

But the reason that I’m encouraging you to rethink your approach to this conversation is:

The science around how we pick our best-fit career has changed, significantly, and this next generation of employees want different things at work, than their parents did when they left school.

Think back to when you were leaving high school, probably in the 1980s or 1990s – the thinking at that time was to ask, “What are you good at, at school? Ok, just do that in your career.” This was all we had to go on then, and our career options were quite narrow and limited, compared to the options today’s young adults have.


Years of research and science now tells us that we SHOULD be picking a career based on what we are interested in, NOT what we are good at.

We can be good at something, but NOT actually interested in it! But when you are interested in something, we want to learn more, do well and develop that interest more fully.

I see this demonstrated in the many adults in their 40s and 50s that I work with now, who are well established in careers that they are GOOD at, and paid well in, but NOT interested in. And now they are trying to reinvent themselves to find a career field that makes them happier!

So, what can do you do to align with this new thinking about the career exploration process?

Firstly, avoid the “I just want you to be happy” statement above – teenagers know you want more than this.

Avoid these statements, too:

“Follow your passion.”

“But you’re soooo good at this.”

“Just pick something and get started – you will work it out eventually.”

“They say you will have many careers over your life, so it doesn’t matter what you pick.”

Our young adults at high school have a LOT more information about careers than their parents did, and they see a much greater range of career options presented to them. Which sounds great, but it results in them feeling overwhelmed and under pressure to pick something.

They are concerned about student debt, they suffer from anxiety to a greater extent than their parents and they want to make the RIGHT decision about their career or study path (which often leads to them making no decision and embarking on an endless “gap year” instead – a gap year is useful for some young adults, but not as a way to escape the responsibility of deciding on a career path).

Our young adults have SO MUCH to offer in the workplace too!

They are more collaborative and culturally aware than their parents. They want to work for a purpose, expect to be led by good leaders and look for companies who treat people and the environment with respect. They embrace teamwork to a greater extent than their parents and actively seek to establish a work/life balance, whereas this was mostly an aspiration for their parents!

So, we owe it to them and their mental health to help them get established on a career or study path that aligns with their interests, gives them purpose and enables them see the value they have to offer an employer! And when they are happy and successful, we ALL benefit.

Here’s some steps you can take, as a parent, to support your young adult in exploring their career options:

1. You do NOT have to solve the “What am I going to do after high school?” question your young adult has! Just focus on being available to START a discussion (which might take place over a few years!) and be available as a sounding board (a safe place to share their thoughts or concerns).

2. Notice what THEY take notice of. Here’s an example – my family loves movies; we love discussing what we thought of every aspect of a movie! Through this shared passion, I have noticed that one of my children loves the technical aspects – whether a movie logically makes sense (did the car explosion look realistic, could that person have really driven the car over that ramp, etc), while my other child looks at the story and how they conveyed key themes and addressed social issues. I love looking at the human behaviour (not surprisingly!) and how the relationships were portrayed and reading between the lines etc. It enabled me to mention to each child what they noticed and how it was something that set them apart from the rest of us – it hints at what they are INTERESTED in. It doesn’t mean we should all be working in the movie industry! These interests can suggest careers, so you can help them in getting to know themselves by highlighting that you have noticed what THEY take notice of.

3. Avoid judgement or shutting down options. Hard to do, I know! Your young adult might come up with a career option that doesn’t seem feasible (“I saw a guy on YouTube making $100K per month and I reckon I could do that!”), but don’t dismiss it as unrealistic or stupid. It’s NOT your job to approve or disapprove a career choice! Just listen and ask questions: “I don’t know much about a career as a YouTuber – what appeals to you about that?” and “Well if it interests you, keep exploring it in detail and seeing if it’s feasible; I’m happy to help you sift through the pros and cons.” If the career appeal is just the pay, then eventually they will realise that it’s the only thing about the job that they like, and eventually will drop it. In the meantime, you’ve kept the lines of communication open.

4. Be ready to acknowledge that you don’t have the answers. Try using this line: “The world of work has changed and I’m not highly knowledgeable about this, but I know it’s an important decision so I’m keen to learn more and help you.” Just letting your young adult know that they are not alone in making their career decision, is HUGE. Many young adults tell me how they feel so much pressure to make a good career decision and feel alone in finding the best solution, so remind them that you are there to partner with them and learn as they learn.

5. Recognise your bias in exploring career options. It would be easier for us as parents if our children picked a career that was similar to ours, then it’s easier for us to understand. Here’s an example – when my oldest son was exploring career options in Year 12, he talked about his interest in computers. My immediate reaction (and one I’m not proud of) was to say, “Well all your generation are into computers, aren’t they?” On further exploration and completion of my career search coaching process, it was clear that my son was extremely interested in ALL aspects of computing – software, hard, engineering, design. So, I gave myself a shake and reminded myself that this was HIS interest – just because it’s not mine, doesn’t make it invalid! Right then and there, I started learning about computer science careers, looking for opportunities to learn more about them and having conversations with him about how to get where he wanted – this change in my approach enabled him to share ideas openly and without my bias or ignorance getting in the way.

6. Ask them how you can help them. Again, don’t expect to have all the answers, just make yourself available to help. Ask “Who do you think could help you with this information about engineering careers?” and “What if we just started by going to the Uni Open Day together and seeing what we can find out?” or “I might know someone in that career, would speaking to them be helpful for you?” Avoid the “You SHOULD…” or “What you NEED to do is…” Make suggestions rather than telling them or issuing orders.

7. Pick your battles. Your child might be focused on going to Otago University because all their mates are going and they plan to flat together, but without any consideration of the study or career path that will suit them. This often happens and you can get all anxious about this, or you can let the idea burn out slowly in its own time, as your young adult realises that flatting is just one small aspect of going to Otago, and usually they come to the conclusion that there might not be a study path for them there. Don’t respond to EVERY idea or thought they have, sometimes they are just a fleeting notion!

8. Remember that ignoring you is a form of power for your young adult. To handle this, pick your times to have in-depth conversations about issues such as career options – don’t force the discussion when they clearly aren’t in the mood. If my children were energised or chatty in the car after school, I sometimes seized the opportunity to have more in-depth discussions about career options, when they didn’t have to look me in the eye and couldn’t get out of the car! Sometimes, when they had mates in the car, a light-hearted chat about study options provided a chance to put some ideas into the ‘universe’!

9. Praise effort BEFORE achievements. It’s easy for some students to get great results at school, but the behaviour that should be most encouraged and is valued in the workplace, is effort. Take note of the EFFORT going into their studies, activities, etc and commend them for this – let them know you see their effort and value them for it. This is what sets them up for success in the workplace and helps them put school performance into perspective.

10. Avoid shaming them, bribing or giving them ultimatums. These are strategies that invite your young adult to defy them. Telling them “What a silly idea, you’d have to be crazy to consider that as a viable career!” or “You can do anything you want, but I forbid you to do THAT!” is not constructive or likely to support you in building a positive relationship with them. Hold your views to yourself and if you can’t say anything positive, say, “That’s an interesting idea, tell me more…” Some parents have said to me, “I told my young adult that if they picked a career in X or Y then I would pay for their study fees.” This is a recipe for disaster/failure and an easy way out for parents.

Helping your young adult pick a career is stressful and can feel overwhelming, as a parent. I totally understand this, and it doesn’t mean you are an idiot or a bad parent.

That’s why I started my business, Career Matters, to take the stress off parents in this important discussion, bring data and facts to the conversation, and I use a coaching process to help you and your young adults through this decision. If you feel this subject is causing a rift with your young adult, get in touch and I can show you how my new thinking around career exploration can help you.

Tracey Beard, CEO (Chief Encouragement Officer) at Career Matters.

I strongly believe that students and young adults need better support in exploring their career options, so I am using powerful contemporary tools to do this, along with 1:1 coaching with the student and their parents. I have has worked with thousands of young adults aged 16-25 across New Zealand, and their parents, over the last 10 years.

You can reach me at 021-843537 or

Book a FREE Discovery Call here to find out how I can help you!


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