How Teens Decide What They Want to Do When They Grow Up

"What are your plans after high school?" is a dreaded question for a lot of teens. In this week's Teen Talk column, a college junior shares how teens today are deciding their post-grad plans and how parents can help.

Illustration of woman thinking of careers
Photo: Illustration by Emma Darvick

Throughout our childhood and adolescent years, we are often asked, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" Depending on your age and the amount of exposure you have received, your answers may have been confined to the careers you've seen glorified in your life or on TV—doctor, teacher, lawyer, nurse, police officer, firefighter. Alternatively, you may have dreamed of having a career in entertainment—singing, acting, or becoming a professional athlete. But there are many careers out there that most kids don't know even exist until they grow up. For example, how many children do you know that dream of being a marketing analyst, vice president of human resources, personal trainer, or a blacksmith? Let's change that!

I'm a junior in college aspiring to be a school counselor. I want to be the person who introduces the next generation to the variety of post-graduation opportunities available to them. I understand how complicated it can be to make this decision as a high schooler who barely knows the assortment of jobs that exist in the world. The truth is this: Post-graduate career options are endless for those preparing to receive their high school diploma; and with the support from parents, teens can feel that they truly have the power to do anything we put our mind to.

Research With an Open Mind

When my parents provided career inspiration and insight, I sometimes felt they were letting their own biases take over. I often found that when my mother would try to help me figure out what career path to take, her suggestions ultimately consisted of professions she was familiar with. She'd tell me, "I think you should look into being a lawyer." Or she would say, "Have you ever considered going into the medical field?" I know my parents just wanted what they thought would be best for me, but it was hard not to feel that their suggestions constricted my decisions. Their input, desires, and awareness of the existing job market sometimes overpowered my own considerations for my future. Instead of pointing me toward career paths that were familiar to them, I wish they did research with me to help me navigate my own journey so I could find what is best for me.

Encourage Real-Life Experience

If you asked me what I wanted to be in middle school, I would've told you that I wanted to be a lawyer. If you asked me the same question in high school, I would've told you I wanted to be a meteorologist. My first year in undergrad, I wanted to be a marketing analyst. My second year, I began to look into the human resources field. At the time, my academic advisor consistently suggested that I do an internship to dip my toe in the water and gain some exposure. I listened and accepted an internship in human resources and quickly realized I hated it. I'm glad my advisor pushed me to do an internship because it turns out that I absolutely despised the career field and overall found myself unhappy.

Through that experience, I realized how essential school counselors are and thought of how impactful it would be to serve in that capacity. I began to shift my focus to a career that I enjoyed: the growth and development of children and youth. From there, I searched for graduate school programs, conducted research about local school districts initiatives and counseling programs, and overall deciphered how I can best make a difference in the field of education. Now I know that when I graduate from Winthrop University, I plan to get a Master's in school counseling. It took me almost a decade to align my passion with purpose and find a career path that was right for me, but what is for you will not pass you by.

Teens Need Support, Especially Now

After high school, we typically see people go onto the military, college, or the workforce. Everyone has a different experience making this decision, but what matters most is that teens start thinking about this plan long before graduation day. Parents can be supportive through this process by listening with understanding and asking thought-provoking questions. This will help your child to think a little bit deeper about what it is they are trying to accomplish. This process can feel stressful to teens, so be a cheerleader for your child!

Sometimes plans get altered and interrupted. We're seeing that now as COVID-19 continues to modify how we operate on a daily basis. The global pandemic may cause teens and families to shift their plans for a variety of reasons. These are unforeseen circumstances that are likely impacting teens' school, graduation, internship, and work plans. Help your teen understand that a canceled internship or delayed entry to the workforce does not mean they failed. Remind them that just because their original plans have shifted directions or changed as a whole, they should continue to follow their heart and make the most of their dreams, even if it's a waiting game for now.

The Bottom Line

Life is full of ups and downs, adventures and misadventures. The path to choosing what we want to do after we graduate isn't always obvious and can sometimes take years to figure out. Remind your child to take this time seriously but let them know that no one has it all figured out when they cross the graduation stage.

Brandon Jackson is a 20-year-old from Columbia, South Carolina. He is a junior at Winthrop University and is majoring in Business Administration, concentration in Human Resource Management, with the intent to go into school counseling.

Read more Teen Talk columns here.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles