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.

22 replies
  1. JLD
    JLD says:

    This post really resonates with me. And it clarifies my thinking for future years of homeschooling. I had been considering reaching out to my community to see if individuals would take on my son for a couple of weeks so he could experience some varied work environments. The apprenticeships of the 1700’s have always shined in my mind. As a teenager I was so desperate to start my life. When I see the young 20-somethings living at home with mom and pop and I am utterly baffled. I hadn’t really considered that teens needed the guidance from parents to initiate their own lives and lifestyles. Thanks for this new nugget to ponder and inspire!

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      You bring up that you’re thinking two-week stints with people in the community. I have been thinking recently about how much time does a person need to be doing something to know what they feel about doing something. It’s a question I don’t really have an answer to. I mean, I have the answer that you don’t know what it’s like to do something til you’re an expert. And you know what it’s like to hate doing something after five minutes. It’s neither of those. It’s something else. I was just surprised by the two weeks. Like, somehow you have come to the magic number.


      • JLD
        JLD says:

        Two weeks is the hypothesis; the conclusion will be what it will be (and won’t that be interesting).

        Two weeks felt like a fair amount of time to ask someone in the community to commit to, and also enough time for a honeymoon period to crest and fade. Two weeks also feels like enough time to experience a journey, learning more than just the “work”, and bringing a new piece of the puzzle to what my son might want his adult life to look like.

        • Hannah
          Hannah says:

          This might be a little bit too pop-psychology, but what about 5 weeks?

          This is based off of the fact that most people cannot do more than 20 hours of knowledge work per week unless it is an area of strength (Strengthsfinders), and that it takes 10,000 hours to develop mastery (Outliers).

          If you devote 20 hours a week to learning something new, for 5 weeks, then you are 1% of the way to mastery. You could probably make a reasonably educated guess as to whether you want to continue down the path or not, and honestly, its enough time for someone else to give you a reasonable critique of your potential.

          • Elizabeth
            Elizabeth says:

            5 weeks sounds like a good amount of time: enough to be of value to the ‘temporary employer’ – and to really dig in for the ’employee’.

            I work at an international school and am setting up an arts internship program for IB kids: high achievers who are keen for careers in difficult fields. Two weeks had been suggested by admin but I felt it wasn’t long enough to give valuable experience to either party. I’ll suggest four or five weeks as another option.

  2. Renee
    Renee says:

    Are teenagers (or is anyone) qualified to know from a personality test what’s a good job fit? As an INTP, I am horrible at making decisions given infinite possibilities. Only within the framework of the military, which has a vast array of possible jobs but many limitations, can I choose what I do and where to live. I am happy in work and can’t imagine doing anything else, yet never have I seen my profession on any personality test. I also read the other day how MBTI is meaningless.
    I learn about myself from the tests and the summaries, but it does seem weak in the job-choosing area.

  3. Alice Bachini
    Alice Bachini says:

    My oldest has just left high school not knowing what she wants to do except for a) help people and b) be an entrepreneur. What she did was this: first, secure a college place to study business studies (not really useful for entrepreneuring, but she likes learning about how businesses work) but put the place off for a year (this is in the UK, where gap years are more common). Then, she got herself selected on a (really good and competitive) charity program for young volunteers, and is now going to Chennai, India for 3 months when her friends start at college. She’ll be helping set up community schemes for health, education etc. So she can figure out what helping people is like on a very basic level, make friends with some peers (like you do at college, but a wider age range), and take things from there. That’s as far as we’ve got so far.

    Anyway, people with gap years are notorious for wasting them bumming around, but the real idea is to do experiences that can change you and help others, and I’d like to encourage parents with teens to think this way. Kids who are genuinely undecided can immerse in something like this, learn about themselves, do something worthwhile and get the space to mature outside of the familiar family home as well as making a bunch of new contacts while they do it. And it’s great to have on a resume.

    Here’s the charity we’re going with (it’s all over the world) if anyone is interested in finding out more. They have excellent care and support for the volunteers and are very highly respected.

  4. Vanessa
    Vanessa says:

    This is also my favourite post. I had a lump in my throat probably because I also remember how hard it was and how my otherwise great parents were useless at helping me follow my dreams. And what you said about Gen Y. I feel for them. I don’t want to let my kids down. Why I homeschool…

  5. Joyce
    Joyce says:

    Hi Penelope! This is a timely post for us. Thank you!

    My family lives with my cousin and her 13 year old daughter. The daughter stopped school for one year so that her brother can finish high school first while the oldest sister is in college.

    English is our 2nd language so I had my niece read this blog post aloud. I defined some of the difficult words for her, like emerging adulthood, debt, stratosphere, paleontology, etc. Then, I explained some of the metaphors like “debt up to the stratosphere” and “washed up 30 year olds.”

    So we took the personality test for her. I translated and she answered. We tried your test but it ended up too long so we took a simpler test for children, even though that was still too long. I thought she would be ESFP but she turned out to be ESTP. We looked at careers for ESTP.

    She has always been a bit of a tomboy and wants to be a police officer or soldier. This was a good fit for her. Unfortunately, in my country a soldier must have at least 72 units in college and a police officer must have a college degree. So to college she still must go if she chooses the police or military, even though reading English is still a challenge for her.

    As for me, I knew from a young age that I loved reading. In college, I learned that I was INFP. I worked as a writer and a researcher before I studied law. I’m now reviewing for the bar exam. It looks like working in government or legal aid could be the best fit for me. Plus, I should continue writing in my free time.

    Thank you!

    • jessica
      jessica says:

      The good news is that if you’re not in the US, college is pretty reasonable!

      Police here generally need a degree (pay is much much better with one) and military, while you don’t need a degree, it’s much easier to move up the ranks with one (start as officer) and you are reimbursed college tuition. Does your country have a program like that?

      • Joyce
        Joyce says:

        Yes, college is reasonable here. I don’t know of any college reimbursement program in government. But there’s free technical and vocational education here.

  6. Jana Miller
    Jana Miller says:

    Meg Jay is awesome! My son (20) read her book a year ago and is reading it again. It should be required reading for all teens. I agree that we need to help our kids find those opportunities to try things out.

    My oldest decided on his own that he wanted to do more with his life after he worked as a bagger at a grocery store.

    My younger son set up an internship with a photographer(because he thought he wanted to be one). I let him know that you can set up your own internship and that you don’t just go for something that someone else created. While he decided against photography-realizing the business side didn’t fit with his personality, he gained two 20 something adult friends who have continued to be a part of his life. And it saed him a bunch of time not going after a profession that he would have been unhappy at. Keep writing these awesome posts. You nailed it!!

  7. Kerry
    Kerry says:

    I had a comment but still loving the concept of graphic sex if it is “educationally prehistoric”…

    But seriously, this is one of the best posts.

    After teaching for 8 years at a large public university it became very clear to me that parents of Gen Y kids are very poor consumers of education. I felt so bad for my 18-25 year olds and you nailed it, Penelope, that they are great at becoming what their parents want but have no clue about themselves.

    I was in a career transition myself (my late 30’s midlife crisis…still ongoing, yes I’m an ENFP) and started doing small workshops with my students using career books aimed at the mid-life crisis crowd. I felt if I could catch them at 19 before they made the mistakes they could avoid waking up at 38 wondering how they got there. This worked with some but many did not act on the “a-ha” moments that came up. They really didn’t seem to get it was their life. I think some people need the message over and over again before they can throw off the parental voices in their head.

    After reading this post, I think college might have been too late for this. The kids were invested in a particular path and even when I tried to explain the concept of sunk costs (don’t throw good money/time after bad, no matter what has already been spent, I.e. sunk costs are not included in the balance sheet), they couldn’t hear it.

  8. Jenny Hatch
    Jenny Hatch says:

    My two oldest children will graduate from College this year. I homeschooled both of them for a time and then had a baby and lost it for a couple years and decided to send them to a charter because I was not emotionally capable of teaching and caring for a newborn.

    They both agree that the charter helped prepare them for College, but have been somewhat disturbed by the students in their classes who are really missing basic skills.

    I do not know that College is absolutely essential, but it has been interesting to hear them talk while I homeschool my 6th grader.

    Love your insights Penelope!


  9. Lucy Chen
    Lucy Chen says:

    I never thought about it – how teens, throughout history, have been “aided” when growing into adults. How you’ve said it, it’s so clear. Thank you.

    However, Penelope, what do you do when the sex scene came up? Do you explain anything to your son? How do you manage it? Thanks again.

  10. Aquinas Heard
    Aquinas Heard says:

    I’d like to give a recommendation to the parents of teens who are trying to figure out what they want to do career-wise with their life. Try approaching a small business owner to see if he/she might need any help in whatever area might overlap with your child’s area of interest. Ideally the teen would take the initiative and ask the business owner himself.

    Let me use my business as an example of the potential opportunities I have in mind for the teen. I own a recreational gymnastics center. The majority age-range of the kids who attend my gym is 4-9 yrs old and 12-15yrs old.
    I do:

    My own accounting
    Instruction of students
    Instruction of coaches
    Data entry
    Grouping of children for classes (based on skill level, knowledge level of individual coaches, personality of coaches and children, availability of coaches)
    Scheduling of coaches hours based on their availability
    Organization of equipment and rotation schedule (moving from one event to the next) for each hour
    Picture taking for uploading to website

    I tried to list as many tasks/responsibilities I could think of that might present opportunities for a teen to find some area that overlapped with their interest and where they could possibly provide some value. I’m an Objectivist so I am not very likely to offer the opportunity just because the teen wants some kind of chance. They need to come to me with a value proposition. I think teens that approach business owners with this mentality will have the greatest “chance” for being accepted as an apprentice or a “consultant” (I can’t think of the proper word).

    So with my situation in mind here is how a teen could find an opportunity with me and discover more about what they like. This is assuming they already had an idea of all of the tasks I have to do. (A teen could ascertain many of these things by sitting in the business most of the day).

    Accounting payroll: They could ask me if I might be willing to let them handle all of the number related tasks in exchange for promising me ways to make my business more efficient or to save me money or both. Benefit for teen: They figure out if this is one of the ways they like interacting with numbers.

    Instruction of students: They could ask me if they could start being an assistant coach for no pay (until they became proficient). Benefit for teen: They figure out if they like “teaching” and/or working with kids.

    Instruction of coaches: They might watch me do this activity and figure out way to make me more proficient. Such as: “Mr. Heard, have you ever thought about incorporating video commentary of your coaching so that your coaches can go back home and study what you do?” Also: “Mr. Heard, I would be willing to take on this video component and I figure out a way to eventually get compensating for this and of which we would both agree.” Benefit for teen: They figure out if they like doing any kind of video related stuff.

    Grouping of children for classes: This one would be easy to get going with me. I love talking about kids. The teen might ask: “would you be willing to meet with me once a week at an hour of your choosing just to talk about your experience working with kids of different personality types?” (I’ve taught over 3,000 kids). Benefit for the teen: They figure out if they are really that interested in psychology or child psychology.

    Organization of equipment and rotation schedule (moving from one event to the next) for each hour: After observing gymnastics classes over the course of a week or so they might say: “I figured out a way to make your group rotation more efficient” or “I thought of a piece of equipment I could design and build that would make a certain skill easier for the kids to master.” Benefit for the teen: they see how much they like analyzing processes and/or inventing/building.

    Marketing: I have only marketed on 2 different occasions in the 18 years I have been in business. The two times I did market, it was a 1 month ad in a local parenting magazine. So there could be a lot of opportunity for a teen here. The teen might say to me: “I know you have a lot of teens (cheerleaders) who attend and they are really into social media/networking. I would be willing to devise a marketing strategy, with your final approval, with a sole focus on social media.” Or “I have an idea where we let your students design shirts with gym related pictures or sayings which we then sell through your gym website. This will get the word out about your gym and I will handle every aspect of it, including coming up with what will be the mutually beneficial financial split between us.” The benefit to the teen: They see how much they enjoy marketing and their first foray into a small business (which the t-shirt component could become).

    I think parents of homeschoolers would find small business owners very receptive to an assertive teen who could present the business owner with potential value, even if that value might be a little ways in the future. At the same time, the teen could use the experience to, either figure out what they want to do, or specialize even further what they already know they want to do.

    Hope this helps for some parents out there.

    Aquinas Heard


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