Here’s an email I received this week:

I’ve been really insecure lately about college for my oldest, but then every time I research Gen Z these kids are hacking their education and are basically gonna leapfrog over Gen Y… I don’t know how to prepare my kids for that.  Maybe I should just leave them alone.  Did you know that Gen Z prefers having 5 screens and only has an 8 second attention span?  I didn’t, until I read an infographic for marketers to Gen Z.  

Advice?  Especially when the oldest wants to live on Mars…. prep for college or just let her figure it out?

Here’s my answer: I don’t think kids can “just figure it out.” There has not been a time in history that kids have made the transition from childhood to adulthood on their own.

I could tell you about the 1950s, where you stayed at one job for 50 years so you counted on your company to teach you to be an adult. Or we could talk about the 1850s, when your parents taught you how to farm and you farmed your family land or someone else’s. We could talk about the 1750s, when you got an apprenticeship to learn a trade or learned to be a housewife.

But let’s talk about this BBC movie I watched with my son about the first humans and how the ones who succeeded were social. Because the inherent social nature of humans is so important, the process of coming of age is important to paleontologists. It turns out that males stayed with the group and females left the group when they came of age. Groups were set up so that the head male would initiate a female into the group.

Before I knew it, my son and I were watching naked, aggressive sex on our big bright screen.

What stuck with me—besides the shock of realizing you can get graphic sex on regular TV if it’s educationally prehistoric—is that there has always been a way that the adults helped the teens make the transition to adult life.

So I don’t think unschooled kids will be any different. They will be good at knowing what they like to do, but they won’t be good at making the transition unless the parents help.

So there are two ways to help: either help the kid get a job, and then another job, until they can get jobs on their own. Or help the kid get into college, a college that will actually get the kid what they need in order to get the job they want after college. And not just put the kid into debt.

Not every kid needs to go to college. Not every kid needs to do entry-level work. But every kid needs to decide what they want. I think the biggest problem kids have with coming of age today is that emerging adulthood phase  where young adults feel it is too early to decide what they want to do.

Because the problem then is that it feels like nothing counts in one’s early 20s. Parents treat the kids like they are too young to make a good decision about anything, so kids internalize that to mean that they can date weird,  inappropriate people, they can take a job that doesn’t pay , they can travel to run away from all their stress.

Parents need to let their kids know that what you do in your 20s counts. It’s your life. So you need to prepare for that as a teen. Which means teens need to take their best guess about what they want to do with their life and start doing it. It’s not like they are going to have a better idea in four years. Read the literature about Gen Y after college. They are all lost. All living with their parents. All in debt that’s up to the stratosphere.

So it doesn’t matter what exactly your teen decides they want to do, but they have to decide something, and own that decision, and start taking action to make it happen. Do you want to be an artist? Then make art all day and start marketing it, because there’s no reason to wait to do that until you are five years older.

Do you want to be a developer? Start writing code. You don’t need to go to school to get a job as a developer. Code changes like fashion. You need to demonstrate that you can teach yourself so you are valuable over the long term. Start writing code now. Solve problems now. Get a job from that portfolio.

If you go to college you need a good reason why you are going. That way you’ll know if you can actually get into the type of school where people graduate and do that one thing. Do you want to be a writer? You don’t need to go to school. Just write. Writers write every day. And they have an editor. And they submit for publication. Do that now.

What if you don’t like it? Fine. You can quit and do something else. But it’s great that you find that out before you’re 27.

So the answer to the question is that teens need to try out jobs. They should do a job, and if they don’t like it, do another. And they should take a personality test. And they should just forget about jobs that are not suited to the strengths of their personality.

I have never ever seen a 30 year old who succeeded in building a career that is incongruent with their personality. I have seen a lot of washed up 30 year olds who wish they were someone else, but really good at what their parents wished they were good at. Don’t let that happen to your kid. Force your kid to make a choice. Force your kid to start leading their own life. One bad job at a time. Because that’s what moving into adulthood means today.

And if they complain, show them the paleontology series on BBC. Emerging adulthood could be a lot worse.