When to talk to teens about their future career

Helping your kids find their bright future.
Helping your kids find their bright future. Photo: Getty Images

It’s hard to know when exactly is a good time to talk to your teen about their career direction or potential career choices.  But, according to a recent Wall Street Journal article, a good time to start could be dinner time.

The recent article touted the many benefits of eating as a family, and described how spending this time together talking could be the catalyst for grooming kids to fulfil whatever career aspirations they may have, provided the talk is positive and motivational.

Michael McQueen, a speaker for the Department of Education, agrees with this. “This is absolutely true,” he says. “The best way to broach the career discussion (as with most topics) is for it to be organic and not something that you specifically set aside time for. Work is a part of life, as should be thinking and talking about it.”

However, McQueen doesn’t define this as necessarily the ‘best’ time to discuss careers. Nor does he highlight a specific age for when the ‘talk’ should take place.

“No age is too early. Young people are forming views and aspirations on careers from a very early age through modelling real life or via exposure to the media,” he explains. “By the same token, it is never too late. The reality is that many of the jobs young people today will have in 20 years time haven't even been thought up yet. So, by all means start the conversation about the nature of work and career, but don't feel it needs to be 'covered off' by a certain age”

Jodi Gibson, a mum to four, started discussing career aspirations with her 16-year-old daughter when it became apparent that her love of singing was more than just a hobby.

“Our daughter has always wanted to sing, as I guess every kid does growing up, but it didn't become a career aspiration until she was about 14 and she began gigging,” says Gibson. “When we learnt this we told her that we were behind her, but it wasn’t until recently that we had a really thorough discussion about it.”   

Whilst Gibson and her husband are fully supportive of their daughter’s choice of career path, they have also been conscious of preparing her for the ‘worst case scenario’ as well.

“It is a continual discussion that is ongoing and will be along her career path. I don't think you can have just one discussion and say that's that. I think there are many choices and directions out there for our kids these days and plenty of time for them. Ultimately though as a parent I think our job is to encourage, support and be the guidance they need, and certainly not to put our own judgments or pressures on them.”

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Lisa Schofield agrees. “I have had a discussion only this week with my almost 14-year-old son about careers,” she says. “He asked why we pushed him 'hard' at school (his words not mine), and I said ‘because you've told us what your dream is and it's our job as your parents to help you find your way there."

It’s Schofield’s belief that when it comes to teens it's important to be careful to ask the right kinds of questions, but not be directive and conclusive. “All we can do as parents is to help them find their passion and affinity with an area, but not push or pigeon hole them into a 'job title',” she says. “If they ask what jobs they can do, I think it's about showing them a range of options and types of roles that may be available in a field they're interested in.”

McQueen echoes these sentiments, and highlights that ‘rather than pressuring your teen to have a plan, the most helpful way to talk to them about their future is by emphasising two words: options and preparation.’

So what exactly does this mean, and how best can we prepare our teens?

“It is critical that young people keep their options open and become educated on what their career and study possibilities are,” explains McQueen. “In the second instance, it is good to talk about how young people can prepare for a career by developing their skills, contacts and experience.”

As far as helping young people narrow down their options, McQueen recommends referring to online resources such as My Career Match, a program designed to generate suitable careers based on responses to a comprehensive questionnaire. He also stresses the benefits of talking to teens about what they are already drawn to. 

“Look at what hobbies, interests and passions they have formed in life, and discuss how the skills and elements involved in these could be used to derive an income,” he says, “Sometimes those who are one-step removed, and therefore objective, can also be a good source of seeing these passions.  So it’s worth thinking about asking aunts or uncles, sports coaches, youth group leaders, and school teachers for their input as well.”