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Changing the Career Conversation by Asking the Right Question

“What do you think you want to do?”

The answers to this question can be endearing, fantastical, predictable, or nonexistent. They sometimes offer insight into a teenager’s interests or abilities, occasionally just demonstrate what that teenager’s parents want them to be someday, and almost always make the young person uncomfortable.

Yet we keep asking.

We have our reasons, which stem from the best of intentions. First of all, we’re genuinely interested. Individually, we want to know what this teenager hopes to accomplish. In a larger sense, adults would like to know what people of the next generation dream of, and how they will shape our world as they enter the workforce. Sometimes we just want reassurance that teenagers do expect to work someday!

As our kids and their friends grow and mature, we naturally change how we speak to them. We want to know these young people well and address them in a way that acknowledges their maturity, while asking about things that are relevant to them. That’s great. And so we ask them about what they see themselves doing for a career.

We should stop doing that.

Why We Need to Stop Asking About Careers:

1. Technology has changed everything.

In all likelihood, what they’ll be someday probably hasn’t been invented yet. Think about many of the careers that are attractive today. Internet marketer. Content creator. YouTube star. None of those existed 25 years ago.

Meanwhile, every single job that uses the internet (read: almost all jobs ever) has changed drastically. The people who do those now either a) couldn’t have imagined them when they were teens having the career talk and answering “What do you want to be someday?” or b) weren’t born 25 years ago. It’s likely that many of the jobs our kids will have haven’t been created—or even imagined—yet either.

2. Our kids probably won’t have just one career.

The question of what career you’ll have is based on an out-dated model. Gone are the days when a teen chooses a path, gets an education, and stays with one job—or even one career—until retirement. The Bureau of Labor and Statistics says that the average worker currently has had 10 jobs before the age of 40, and that young people today are predicted to have 50 percent more by that same age. That’s a big change for the career talk too.

3. There are worthier things to focus on.

This is the real issue—what they’ll major in and do for a living is the wrong question.

As a society, we’ve become laser focused on achievements. What’s on the brag sheet? How will that activity look on a resume or application? Did you win? Ace the test? Get the award? Speak more languages? Play an instrument perfectly? We’re creating a generation of people who believe that they will be measured only by their accomplishments.

As parents, we’ve bought into that pressure. We do our level best to help them meet these expectations. We’ll buy them anything we think might help, and we manage (often micromanage) every aspect of their lives to keep them on track towards “success.” In doing so, we rob them of the chance to fail. We deny them the practice they need at messing up, dropping the ball, having to figure out how to make amends, and picking it up again.

Here’s our most important job as parents: raising problem-solvers. People who can stand back up when they fall. Who don’t expect everything to go their way. Individuals with the fortitude to try again, maybe even without whining. Our kids know that we’re experts at finding solutions. Now it’s their turn to learn how to do that. We don’t have to solve their problems to prove our love.

We need each generation to look at the problems in the world, decide which one they’d each like to tackle, and, most importantly, know that they’ve got the experience to change things. They won’t believe that unless we do. They won’t leave the world better than they found it until we start focusing on how they can.

And Start Asking This Instead:

So the next time you speak to a young person, don’t ask what they want to major in or what they want to be when they grow up. Instead, ask them what problem they want to solve.

Dr. Deborah Gilboa

Deborah Gilboa, M.D. (a.k.a. “Dr. G”), is a family physician and author of Get the Behavior Your Want  . . . Without Being the Parent You Hate. Follow her on Twitter @AskDocG or learn more at AskDoctorG.com.