Vocation or Avocation?  Parents and Advising on College

Sage career advice to teens and young adults is to find a way to do what you love.  But what if what they love won’t allow them to support themselves, let alone a family?  What kind of conversation should the parents be having with the kids as they consider adult careers?

There was once a time when the child’s vocational choices were established by the parents.  College was for the wealthy and consisted of classes in dead languages and Natural Philosophy, while those in the mercantile class sent their boys off to apprenticeships; daughters were simply married off with the expectation of raising a family and the only hope for them was that the husband was a good provider.  If a child truly loved a particular interest, then they would pursue it as an avocation on their own time after they’d provided a roof and food for themselves.  Avocations were chosen by the kids, but the vocations were selected by the parents. 

The pendulum has swung back to the other side and many kids over the past several decades have gone into college for both satisfaction and career.  That was fine in the old, more affordable, model but we’ve run into two major issues in the past ten or so years.  First, the cost is far too great to permit the vast majority to study for the sake of intellectual satisfaction since the career path for English Lit majors is exceptionally short and rocky.  Second, the hollowing out and zombification of our economy means that even kids coming out with career aspirations are finding that there are simply no positions available.  We now have baristas and convenience store clerks with Master degrees for lack of anything else.

With a kid on the cusp of college and two more in the queue, the questions are how directive should I be and precisely what do I say?  As full disclosure, I took my own father’s strongly suggested advice that I earn a Business degree instead of Journalism for the sake of employability and decades later, I’m writing a website while raising kids and managing a household.  One of the lessons is that you can never know what’s coming down the road.  It’s a ticklish situation since these kids are passing to adulthood with little experience and a potential mortgage before they even hit the workforce, yet choosing the route of one’s life is the hallmark of adulthood.  If we’ve raised them to stand on their own and be accountable for the decisions and consequences, then it’s a blow to the ego to suddenly deprive them of their decision and that’s especially given that many kids are coming through with the bills in their own names.  Here are some of the things that we’ve either discussed or tried to do in the past several years.

  • Talk openly about the non-dischargeable nature of college debt and the need to be able to select a route that at least gives the possibility of an income that covers the debt load. 
  • Talk openly about the market for certain occupations and whether the average income allows the graduate to cover the nut.  When Eldest did an online career assessment survey through her school, I walked through some of the occupations that spit out in response to her questionaire answers and touched base on whether there’s a bit market for such positions as casting director.
  • Talk openly about the college marketing circus so that they understand that they don’t have to attend MIT, Caltech or Swarthmore to obtain a good education. 
  • Spend some time looking at the incomes for that occupation and share it with the teen.  One of the kids, who has a talent and drive for the theatre, has already had the concept of income streams introduced and in a later conversation about music, stated that he was seriously working with his guitar so that he could have a fallback income stream when the theatre gigs were light.  *Ding*Ding*Ding!
  • Share the status of their college savings with them, if any.  Likewise, actually walk through what would be required for debt repayment so that they can compare that with the average income and work through a mock budget.  If they take on $X debt, what will they be giving up for the foreseeable future after graduation?

The long and short is that it’s going to be their decision and they’re now – or will soon be – adults.  But most of them aren’t stupid and if you’re willing to take the time to engage them, they’ll listen.  At the minimum, there’ll at least be a semblance of an educated decision and that’s more information than they’ll get anywhere else.



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