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Culture & Family

When I ask young adults what made them choose the work they are doing, many cite a particular moment, experience or role model as decisive. While career decisions may appear to come about in an instant, teens and young adults have been receiving messages about careers and career choice for years.

All forms of media, language, cultural myths, family preferences, peer pressure and fads cause certain careers to get labeled cool and others not. Ethnic, racial and gender stereotypes—whose origins can be in local, regional or national culture—all exert influence over career selection.

This article will review a few ways in which culture and the families we grow up in shape our career choices.

It is said that culture creates and presents reality. Family members help us interpret and make sense of that reality. Culture provides the action; parents and extended family provide the tools for reflection on that action. Families also help children form values with which to make judgments about the reality that culture presents.

Culture has an enormous influence on career selection. People living in the United States experience a national culture through media available throughout the 50 states—TV, the Internet, newspapers and magazines. Hannah Montana, USA Today, and Good Morning America, YouTube—and their advertisers—all seek to influence individual beliefs and behaviors. All have something to sell, be it a product or point of view. What gets presented and how it gets presented influence many viewer choices including occupational and consumer ones.

Sadly, the contribution to career choice from any part of national culture doesn’t have to be based in fact; it can be pure fantasy. There isn’t yet a Snopes-like site at which one can find lists of career myths that are passed about as truth. Career exploration in real time is an activity whereby families can be of great assistance. Parents and grandparents can set up opportunities for young family members to talk with several people doing jobs that interest them. Young people need to be able to see real job sites and get a sense of a typical workday.

A recent director of the employee assistance program for a state bar association revealed that most of the lawyers wanting help changing careers had practiced law between 15 and 20 years and had made the decision to become a lawyer based on years spent watching the TV show LA Law. Perhaps GenM lawyers will site exposure to Ally McBeal as their career epiphany. Currently, the TV show CSI has made many young viewers interested in the career of crime scene investigator. Real CSI’s are amused, and sometimes irritated, that their often mundane work has been made to look so glamorous. Few of the millions of young people currently interested in this work have the methodical and detail driven personalities to really do it.

Faddish interest in certain kinds of work, sparked by movies, TV, celebrities and other media, show how images that come through our national culture can influence career decisions. Unfortunately, this type of career decision making is based almost entirely on projection-what the young person thinks happens in that kind of job—rather than any field experience or in depth research. Career decisions made with such superficial information often waste both time and money.

The dots don’t connect just because you want them too.

While writing What Color Is Your Parachute? for Teens, I interviewed nearly 500 young adults in college or working. Of those who took advanced studies, I found just 5 who had talked with multiple people about the jobs they wanted pursue once they got their academic or technical qualifications. Such lack of current job market information can be costly. About half of graduating seniors who had begun looking for work before graduation had already learned that they didn’t need a college degree for the jobs they most wanted or that the entry level jobs they can get won’t use their education.

Selecting higher education on a whim or on the belief that all degrees are of equal value in the market place has lead many young adults onto a path of debt and disappointment.

Almost all high-skill, high-pay jobs require some sort of further study after high school. And, almost all this further study, either technical training or academic degrees, is expensive. Student loans make gaining career qualifications even more costly. If further education is sought in the belief that it will help an individual’s employability, that individual may be sorely disappointed if they haven’t done any market research. (For instructions on how to do market research, read about Information Interviews, in Chapter 8 of What Color Is Your Parachute? for Teens.

Closer to home: other culture factors that influence career choice.

In addition to experiencing a national culture, individuals may belong to other groups or subcultures to which they, or their families, have strong ties. Regional, local, religious, ethnic, racial or historical affiliations may exert even stronger influence on a teen or young adult, as these are institutions or groups with which youth have frequent and personal contact. Each organization to which a young adult has strong ties has probably passed along value judgments with regard to what’s a cool job—and wha’s not.

Even geography can influence career choice. The Silicon Valley is synonymous with the electronics industry, venture capital and entrepreneurs. New York is thought of as the center of finance. Surprisingly, until the current credit crunch, Orange County was actually the center of the sub-prime lending industry. Washington, D.C., is associated with lawyers, lobbyists and politicians. The Pacific Northwest evokes visions of loggers and forests. New York and Los Angeles are the two centers of the entertainment industry, as well as late night TV. Southern California will forever be linked with 90210, movie studios, and a youthful beach culture. You get the point. In a particular area, the resources both man made and natural gives rise to unique kinds of jobs that have different levels of prestige and acceptability.

The immediate community is local culture and also asserts huge influence on career choice. Local employment opportunities, or the lack of them, are the deciding factor whether youth stay living near where they grew up or go away. Too often, decisions to move are made with a less than extensive knowledge of the employers and job options that exist in the local community.

In addition to culture, families have great effect on job choice or career selection.

We inherit beliefs, goals values, behaviors, attitudes and dreams from our families. This inheritance can greatly affect individual career choice. Through subtle and not so subtle behaviors or comments, career options are encouraged or discouraged. Certain career choices may be presented as part of a child's duty to family, their genes or part of their destiny.

Here are some examples of how these ideas get expressed within families:

  • “No, you may not quit the baseball team. I’ve spent years driving you to practices and games. You’re not going to miss out on a sports scholarship.”
  • “She’s naturally gifted with colors. I’m sure she’ll become a decorator like her mom.”
  • “No, you may not major in journalism. I’ll help pay for your education, but only if you become a teacher.”
  • “The men in our family have been firefighters for three generations. You’ll be one too.”
  • “You’ve got to major in business and take over the store so your dad can retire.”
  • “No one in our family has ever been successful. Don’t expect to like what you do. That’s why it’s called work.”

There are also non-verbal cues. Body language, tone of voice and gestures can communicate positive or negative information that can influence or undermine career choice. Parents need to pay attention not only to what they actually say, but also to what their words or behaviors imply.

Lack of family involvement in teen’s lives effects career choice as well. Teens whose families don’t support their interest in career exploration or a particular career path are less able to make good career decisions.

Stereotypes limit options.

Is there something wrong with culture or families trying to influence the career choices of its youth? If that influence limits rather than expands career choice, then, yes, there is something wrong. Far too often, the reality presented by cultural media and the interpretations given by families to media presentations are based on limited knowledge. Such shallow presumptions often narrow occupational options.

For example, visual media can have strong effect on creating and reinforcing gender stereotypes. In the mid-1990s, 42% of IT (Information Technology) workers were female. There were realistic hopes that as the industry grew, females would hold at least half of jobs in this high skill-high pay field. That didn’t happen. By 2003, women made up just 31% of IT workers. Researchers concluded that movies and television had presented unflattering images of women in technology jobs and thus turned young women away from this well-paid career choice.

Resisting temptation.

Parents may be tempted to push their teens towards certain kinds of jobs that the parents see as prestigious. Resist this temptation. Your future relationship with your son or daughter will benefit from your self-control. The jobs you prefer your teen to choose may be completely inappropriate to their personalities, abilities, level of ambition or job market realities.

In addition, research shows that people are 100 times more likely to be financially successful-something most parents want for their offspring—if they like their work. Few people are successful doing something they don’t enjoy. While you may dream of the bragging rights that go along with your son or daughter having a prestigious job with a six figure income, remember that it’s your child, not you, who has to turn up at that job every day. Encourage your teen to check out many jobs, ones you favor and ones your child does.

A story to illustrate the need to honor the unique talents of our children.

There once was a young man, whom we’ll call Mike. Mike’s mom died when he was about 6 and Mike went to live with a foster family. Teachers told his dad he was intelligent, but disinterested in his studies. His dad brought Mike back home and moved him to a better school, hoping Mike would take more interest in learning. His dad hoped Mike would become a lawyer or businessman and help recoup the family’s status and fortune, which had dwindled due to his mother’s long illness. When Mike was 13, he told his dad that he wanted to be a sculptor. His dad got very angry. They eventually compromised and Mike was allowed to study painting. Mike was so talented that he was paid for his paintings while still a student. Through his paintings, Mike was able to attract the attention of a wealthy man who became his patron. Mike was then able to study sculpture and the rest is, well history.

Those of you familiar with art or Irving Stone’s book, The Agony and the Ecstasy, may have realized that the Mike in the above story is really Michelangelo Buonarroti, whose paintings, statues and other works of art have made his name known to millions of people around the world for over 500 years. It’s highly doubtful that had he been a lawyer or merchant, the name Michelangelo would have been remembered a generation or two beyond his death. By letting his son choose his own career, Papa Buonarroti eventually got what he wanted. The family gained both prestige and wealth.

Parents want their children to be happy. But few parents know enough about the world of work or their children’s unique combination of skills and interests to choose jobs their children will enjoy. Parents can help. Teach your children to work hard, value their uniqueness, set up time for them to explore the world of work and help your teens create a detailed strategy for how they can achieve career success in their own terms.

Parents would also do well to remember the words of another well-known artist of an earlier time. Early in the 20th century, the poet Kahlil Gibran wrote, “Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself… You may house their bodies but not their souls, for their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.”

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