College & Workforce Readiness

Rudderless Youths

By Katie Ash — June 11, 2008 2 min read
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Debbie Viadero has a new story up on about a book that explores the number of “rudderless youths” who go through high school and sometimes college without a clear sense of what they want to do with their lives afterwards.

The book, The Path to Purpose: Helping Our Children Find Their Calling in Life, calls on both parents and educators to help students focus their interests and explore possible career paths at a younger age. A narrowed curriculum, says the author William Damon, along with feelings of alienation from society, may be contributing to an increase in the number of students who are “disengaged” with their future. Only about one-fifth of students surveyed for the study felt that they had a strong sense of purpose, whether that meant building a career, starting a family, or participating in a religion, according to the article.

This phenomenon is one that I am perhaps a bit too familiar with. As an English major with philosophy and French minors, when I graduated college, I was bombarded with questions of what I was going to do next. “Are you going to teach?,” was the most common one. I told them no, probably not, but the truth was, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, nor did most of my peers. It was definitely one of the most unsettling, times of my life.

Fortunately (and sort of miraculously), I found a job that I enjoy, working in subject areas that I am interested in. But a lot of my friends who graduated at the same time as me are either waiting tables, working retail, interning, volunteering, or trying out other odd jobs to see what they might want to pursue as a career. It’s not that these people aren’t passionate or dedicated to certain subject areas, it’s just that I don’t think anyone ever told us how to translate those interests into a career.

And, as the article points out, I think this has major implications for education. If students aren’t engaged with their future, they are much less likely to find their classes relevant and be motivated to do well in them. Damon contends that schools play a pivotal role in helping students figure out what they want to do with their lives, and more emphasis should be put on exposing them to different career paths and encouraging interests that could help fuel a sense of purpose.

However, while I initially agree with the idea, I’m not totally sure that such a plan would help. Job markets are constantly evolving, and a lot of jobs that students may want to have in the future haven’t even been invented yet. Plus, I think it’s sometimes hard to tell what you want to do until you try it out. I mean, I completely resisted the idea of being a reporter until I became one, and now I love it.

What do you think? Is it the educator’s job to help students figure out future plans? Or is that the job of the individual student? Or perhaps their parents? Would such an emphasis on the future even make a difference?

A version of this news article first appeared in the Motivation Matters blog.