Tags: #career #choice #professionals #research #society #stress #students #worldofwork #youth

How early vocational choices reflect a shift in society and why can it be concerning.

How early vocational choices reflect a shift in society beliefs and why some are concerning.

An interview with Margot Peeters and Michelle van der Horst published by Utrecht University Illuster portal gave me a bit of a chill. It is the kind of uncomfortable feeling you can get from reading about societal developments that are missed chance and you cannot stop them, at least not immediately.

Peeters and van der Horst discuss the high level of unhealthy stress amongst youth related to students’ very early career choices. By early we mean both the adolescent vocational choices, when students at the age of twelve select their secondary school, and the high performance stress as young people just start university and soon after become preoccupied with: having a well written CV, relevant work experience, internships with known brands, and volunteering experience that may add extra points on their LinkedIn profile. All that long before they even enter the “adult” employment market.

Enjoying and exploring used to be the keywords for student experience but they seem to be replaced by stress of the unhelpful kind. Perhaps refreshingly, lockdown is not the solo culprit for this situation, which is mostly due to societal pressures. Lockdown, at worst, is a catalyst.

Why is this a matter of concern? In my professional HR experience, I meet quite a number of people who may be good performers and have objectively successful professional lives for years but then they are confronted with a realisation that they never enjoyed what they were doing and never even truly felt a good fit for their profession. Typically, it happens when people reach their late 30s or 40s but it may happen at any stage in life. Sometimes the releasing moment is a painful burnout, sometimes just a realisation of pursuing a wrong target.

Surprisingly, with all we tell kids (and ourselves) about the value of freedom and pursuing dreams, I often meet grown-up, talented, successful (albeit at times feeling miserably) individuals who acknowledge that their studies and early careers had been selected and hand-picked for them by their parents. And I do not just mean parents acting as concerned and wise advisors, but rather leaving their children with no options but the one type of studies that they would approve. Like in that anecdote, whose source I do not recall: “Why did you choose a law degree if you did not like it?”, “Because I did not want to study medicine!”.

When I moved to The Netherlands in 2004 I was struck by how seemingly relaxed the society was about their children school and professional choices. People seemed very professional and well prepared but also very proud and comfortable with their work, regardless of what education took them there. Car mechanics and construction workers charged impressive rates for their services (a lot more than many administrative jobs, in fact) and the rationale was that you should be well paid for your work regardless of your education if you are doing it well, people are born with different talents and everybody was necessary in society so their work should be respected and rewarded. That felt reassuring and egalitarian. (Also, I was told that academic achievement was not just my merit so I should not fuss about it. Fair and lesson learnt).

In the recent years however, I noted some scratches on this approach: the car repair shops remained expensive but it has felt like the pressure on children to land a place in a school that would take them to university has become very high. Or should I say: the pressure that parents feel to send their child to a highest level of school has increased beyond what my earlier experience in this country. The idea of following one’s skills, abilities, talents, and preferences seemed to give way to concerns about admission to the right institution and high performance.

So did the youthful ideal of following one’s heart and talents become a myth, a utopia, fiction and something that you would confront again only after your first career disappointment, or a burnout (shared generational experience)?

That’s what Peeters and van der Horst quote as a finding from their research: amongst the youth, vocational education is “dismissed as subordinate to or less valuable than pre-university secondary school, even though society is highly dependent on those with vocational training”.

Tell me all about it: contrary to all predictions, the lockdowns have left us with a shortage of workers: drivers, builders, retail staff and craftsmen. There are delays on construction sites, in manufacturing, gardening and landscaping due to a shortage of skilled labour. But when did we allow kids to believe that they were worth less if they chose vocational schools over academia?

What happened to the inclusive, egalitarian, harmonious society attitudes that I found so refreshing when I arrived first to The Netherlands?

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