Perspective is a wonderful thing. From the vantage point of a forty-something, I can see quite clearly how transitory school life is. But when you're seventeen, and living your high school years, it can feel like school will last forever. The final year exams can seem crucial to future happiness, and the pressure this places on young people can be overwhelming.
This pressure is reflected in the findings of Mission Australia's 13th annual Youth Survey. The survey found that only around a third of young people believe they will achieve their career and financial goals, and that over a third of young people experience high levels of stress. The authors of the survey believe that this reflects the immense pressure young Aussies are facing in their final years of school.
As a mother of two high school students, I can see how important my children believe their final exams to be. There is a view amongst young people that future success and happiness hangs on the HSC results, and that 'failure' (which in this case means not achieving the desired marks) can literally ruin your life.
Most of us with a decade or more between us and high school can see how flawed this perspective is. There are many ways to achieve our career goals, and a good HSC result is only one of them. You can transfer into a university degree from another course. You can move laterally into a field from a related area. And people frequently chop and change careers over the years.
I'm a prime example. I enrolled in an Arts degree straight out of school, firstly because I didn't know what else to do with my life, and secondly, because I stuffed up my HSC and couldn't really do much else. Later I transferred to Social Work, where I excelled, and after working as a social worker moved into Human Resources, Recruitment, Copywriting, and, eventually, the creative writing I do today.
I think stories like mine are important for young people to know. Whilst you're in your teens, it is difficult - if not impossible – to grasp that life doesn't begin and end with the HSC. Just as a fish cannot appreciate there is life outside their fish bowl, a teen cannot appreciate that there is life outside their own little bubble. Kids need reassurance that there are many ways to achieve a desired goal, but also practical support to identify other avenues if their primary ambitions aren't realised.
It is possible our children will find it harder to achieve their dream job than we did. Jobs are being slashed across the board, particularly in traditionally plentiful areas such as teaching, health care and the public service. On the other hand, careers in IT abound, and in another decade there will be careers that people of my generation can't even understand, let alone anticipate.
So what do I tell my teens?
- Realistically, not everyone can be whatever they want. You need talent to be a dancer, you need intellectual smarts to be a scientist, you need a certain amount of luck to be an actor or writer. If you have what it takes, then give it your all. If you don't, then be practical and focus on the skills you do have. There is no honour is chasing an impossible dream, and satisfaction and fulfilment can come from a number of sources.
- No matter what your career goals, have a second option as a back up. I did copywriting for years whilst I was building up my creative writing career. All work experience is good experience, and opportunities can arise from the most unexpected experiences.
- Nothing is forever. I know many people who have returned to study in their thirties, and many others who have moved into new careers or opened businesses in their forties. You do not need to make a lifelong decision at the age of seventeen. Choose something you feel you will enjoy and that stimulates you, and leave open the possibility of change.
- Your HSC is a number. It will matter for a day, maybe a week, maybe even a month. After that, you will virtually never think about it again. Read your mark, celebrate or sigh, then move on. Tomorrow is another day.