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“So Young and Running Out of Time”: De-Bunking Unhealthy Messages about Vocational Success

Student Success Administrators in Graduate and Professional Student Services Faculty Graduate Mid-Level New Professional VP for Student Affairs
August 22, 2023 Michael J. Stebleton University of Minnesota-Twin Cities

Sharing Paula’s Story

A student interaction haunts me to this day. It was August 2018, and I was visiting the Universidad de San Andrés in Buenos Aires, Argentina. My purpose for the travel was to explore several potential global collaborations around institutional career development initiatives. As part of my itinerary, I took the opportunity to give several presentations to students and staff around life/career planning issues. At the end of one such workshop, a young student approached me from the auditorium as I was hurriedly packing up my materials. She introduced herself as Paula, a 20-year-old junior enrolled at the university who aspired to practice law in China. After a brief exchange, she paused and informed me that she had a question. Paula asked earnestly, "How can we be so young, yet feel like we are running out of time?" Her inquiry stopped me in my tracks, and I stumbled awkwardly toward an appropriate answer. I do not recall how I responded specifically, but it was likely insufficient—and her question continues to linger.

Why Paula’s Question Matters

It has been almost five years since that interaction with Paula, but I think of her question often. For many students, the challenge of deciding what to do and how to do it quickly is a message that gets engrained at a young age—and follows them throughout high school and college. Many students feel the need to specialize and decide on a vocation early. For example, according to the American Freshman Survey, over 85% of incoming first-year students report that the primary reason for attending college is to get a good job or successful career, and 70% of incoming students plan to pursue a graduate or professional degree (Stolzenberg et al., 2020). An increasing number of students at many universities pursue business or healthcare professions, eschewing more liberal arts majors such as the humanities and arts.

Drastic budget cuts and low enrollment have forced many institutions to cut programs, majors, and staff—mostly in the humanities and religious-affiliated schools. Meanwhile, entire academic institutions have been forced to shut their doors or merge with other institutions to survive. Higher education will likely continue to shift over the next years ahead, and responding to students’ academic and professional interests is inherently connected to future planning (Wingard, 2022).

Feeling the Pressure

Irrespective of career pathways, students overwhelmingly experience growing pressure to decide on a major or occupational trajectory early and to stay with it, ideally moving quickly to graduation, often at the expense of exploration. Finding a vocational soulmate is a message that gets promoted early and often to students (Stolzoff, 2023). However, this advice can be misleading and can lead to unintentional consequences, including burnout and concerns about mental health. There are likely multiple potential vocational soulmates that exist for most individuals, not simply one. To better understand this idea of running out of time, it is useful to consider the historical context of career.

Exploring the Origin of the Word Career

When one learns about the multiple early origins of the word career, it can lead to insights into Paula’s question. The word itself comes from the French carriere, meaning a racetrack. Relatedly, career can be derived from the Latin carrus, referring to a chariot. From a historical perspective, the chariot originates from Mesopotamia in about 3000 BC. Chariots were used for transportation and competition between rivals such as warfare. Horse-driven chariots were used in battle, for symbolic and celebratory occasions, and quite literally for combative racing.

The initial use of the word career in a work-related context can be traced back to 1803 where the word refers to a “course” of one’s life. Knowing this history, it becomes more evident of how messaging about career could have been shaped and re-shaped to current conceptualizations with a focus on career success outcomes: racing, winning, and competing against others to achieve vocational accolades. Ironically, many early career-oriented messages refer to closed system metaphors (think: career ladders, pathways, racetracks, and trajectories, where there is a clear endpoint). More open-oriented systems need to be introduced to students to consider the seismic changes in the way work is now being done, including the role of technology and AI (Kellerman & Seligman, 2023).

Confronting Current Messages About Work Success

Many individuals (not just students) continue to get bombarded with messages that one’s successful work defines them, a concept that Thompson defined as workism (2023). Our work consumes us—and we define our identity and often self-worth by the rise and fall of our work accolades and failures. This message is not healthy for most individuals because it can be argued that we are more than one identity. Similarly, Newport (2021) challenged workers to question why we devote so much time to our work—especially when love often does not love us back (Jaffe, 2021). More recently, Simone Stolzoff (2023), in a recently released book, urged readers to consider the “good enough” job, an idea that pushes up against the workism concept by inviting individuals to seek out and hone other sources of enjoyment to meet one’s multiple identities. This holistic approach to life and career is not entirely new (e.g., integrative life planning model and others), but Stolzoff’s new book presents content in an innovative, narrative-based manner that may have some direct application for today’s students and recent graduates.

Offering Another Student Perspective

In a recent graduate-level career development class, I shared Paula’s story with my MA and PhD students. I asked them to offer any ideas or reactions to Paula, especially since many of them identified as Gen Z, in their early-to-mid 20s. In my prompt, I encouraged them to consider the element of time and their relationships to time. I received one insightful response from *Angela. She shared:

It's important to recognize that time isn't a variable that can be fixed or reclaimed; it can't be slowed down or sped up, but it can be invested into worthwhile activities. Accepting our immortality (memento mori) is one of the greatest hurdles for younger generations to overcome because it simultaneously feels irrelevant and off in the distance due to life-extending advances in technology, yet ominously imminent, as if time will suddenly creep up on us….There is also a fear of 'buyer's remorse' with time spent. If there is remorse, that's when a person feels they're running out of time.

Angela also discussed how this dilemma might be addressed:

We can reclaim the feeling of being behind by living purposefully, which can start long before taking on a conventional high impact/high-income career. Individuals need some semblance of where they are going or who they want to become, even on a general level....I believe the high impact/high income career will unfold naturally through smaller, incremental, intentional choices. There is an element of hope (secular) or faith (spiritual) in the process here.

Angela’s insights, including the connection to meaning and faith, led me to consider several strategies for practice, moving from the conceptual to the applied.

Offering Three Strategies for How Student Affairs Professionals Can Support Students

There are at least three strategies that student affairs professionals can take to nudge students to re-examine what it means to be successful—and to re-consider getting off the racetrack.

(1) Moving away from the racecourse or rat race mentality is a message that student affairs educators can promote. Tomorrow’s students will work for a long time, and the ideal life/career portfolio will be more of a marathon, rather than a quick sprint. Mobility over stability will take priority in terms of maintaining career longevity (Cadigan, 2021). Furthermore, learning agility and being able to adapt quickly to new work contexts continue to become increasingly important, along with fostering skills related to empathy and creativity (McGowan & Shipley, 2023).

(2) Promoting “play” to explore and create more balance and find meaning. Several authors contend that with the increased focus on vocationalism in higher education, there is less time to explore and have fun, to simply experiment and play (Varol, 2023). Institutions can continue to expand opportunities for students to craft experiments and be challenged by new learning opportunities, an idea that Cavanagh (2023) refers to as pleasurable disquietude. Getting students out of their comfort zones can lead to positive growth experiences, even though there might be uncomfortable moments and resistance in the learning process (Stebleton, 2016).

(3) Engaging students in regular discussions about meaning making and spirituality. In my last blog (May 2023), I discussed the importance of creating and fostering spaces where these discussions can take place. Re-assuring students that they have time to work on life’s big issues can potentially reduce anxious feelings of making the “right” career choice, knowing that there are likely numerous pathways that will lead to personal and professional success regardless of how that might be defined (Buford et al., 2023). Reminding students that they have time to reach their goals serves as a critical reminder; however, students should accept that time is finite and focus on what they care about as opposed to acquiescing to outside messages about what merits their attention (Burkeman, 2021).

Returning to Paula’s Narrative: An Optimistic Outlook

I often share my story about Paula with others, sometimes in professional settings such as the classroom and other occasions in more informal contexts (e.g., a bar in Wisconsin). Recently, my lifelong friend Matt and I attended a Milwaukee Brewers baseball game. After the game, we happened to chat with two 20-something graduate students who were riding on the same shuttle bus back to a local venue. The students were enrolled in an intensive physician assistant program, and they were relishing a short break before starting a new round of clinical training. It was pure serendipity and happenstance that led to an engaging discussion that lasted longer than any of us likely anticipated. These two students were ambitious, optimistic, and articulate. In many cases, they were like Paula. However, they were different in that they seemed to be more comfortable with the pace and outlook of their lives ahead of them, perhaps not as rushed and less likely to foreclose on major milestone life decisions.

At one point in the discussion, I shamelessly slipped into professor mode and shared my conversation about Paula, and they validated Paula’s experiences with their own. The two students certainly did feel pressure to succeed, but they also made it clear that they planned to reach their own goals on their terms, self-directed by their own values, preferences, and life objectives. Our exchange was an invigorating conversation that left me energized and full of hope. More importantly, this chance encounter re-instilled my trust in today’s students —and the promise and optimism they will bring to the work of the future.

References

Buford, M., Sharp, M. J., & Stebleton, M. J. (Eds.). (2023). Mapping the future of undergraduate career education: Equitable career learning, development, and preparation for a new world of work. Routledge.

Burkeman, O. (2021). Four thousand weeks: Time management for mortals. Farrar, Straus, & Giroux.

Cadigan, S. (2021). Workquake: Embracing the aftershocks of Covid-19 to create a better model of working. Amplify Publishing.

Cavanagh, S. R. (2023). Mind over monsters: Supporting youth mental health with compassionate challenge. Beacon Press.

Jaffe, S. (2021). Work won't love you back: How devotion to our jobs keeps us exploited, exhausted, and alone. Bold Type Books.

Kellerman, G. R., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2023). Tomorrowmind: Thriving at work with resilience, creativity, and connection—Now and in an uncertain future. Atria Books.

McGowan, H. E., & Shipley, C. (2023). The empathy advantage: Leading the empowered workplace. Wiley.

Newport, C. (2021, August 30). Why do we work too much? The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/culture/office-space/why-do-we-work-too-much

Stebleton, M. J. (2016). Challenging students to become reasonable adventurers. About Campus, 21(4), 14-21. https://doi.org/10.1002/abc.21246

Stolzenberg, E. B., Aragon, M. C., Romo, E., Couch, V., McLennan, D., Eagan, M. K., & Kang, N. (2020). The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2019. Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA. https://www.heri.ucla.edu/monographs/TheAmericanFreshman2019.pdf

Stolzoff, S. (2023). The good enough job: Reclaiming life from work. Penguin.

Thompson, D. (2023). On work: Money, meaning, identity. The Atlantic Monthly Group.

Varol, O. (2023). Awaken your genius: Escape conformity, ignite creativity, and become extraordinary. Public Affairs.

Wingard, J. (2022). The college devaluation crisis: Market disruption, diminishing ROI, and an alternative future of learning. Stanford University Press.

Discussion Questions:

(1) What was your reaction to Paula’s question? How might you have responded in that situation as an educator?

(2) Reflecting on the definition of career, do you view yourself as being on a racetrack? Engaged in a competitive battle? What career concept introduced fits best with your own understanding of career?

(3) What is the role of “play” in your life/work? What might be one strategy that you can take to introduce more play?

(4) Of the strategies provided, which one might work best with your own students? Identify a goal you will introduce to your students.

(5) Articulate one concept or idea that has caused you to “re-think” your work with students. Write it down. What might you do differently in the future?

 

Author’s Notes:

*Angela is a pseudonym for a graduate student in one of my career development courses.

Many of these concepts are further explored in the Aug 2023 article featured in the Journal of College and Character and a newly edited book by Routledge (2023). Notably, student affairs educators occupy spaces where they can become powerful career influencers. Thank you to colleague Candy Ho for sharing this idea.

The author would like to thank Abby Wilfert and Vic Massaglia for their helpful feedback on this draft.