Ep. 59: College, Careers, and Becoming Adult

Episode Summary

Barbara Schneider, co-author of “Becoming Adult,” speaks with Andy about her research on how teens’ environment can influence their thoughts and beliefs on college, work, and what’s possible for them.

Who the episode is for: Dads Moms Parents

Who it's about: Preteens Teens

Topics covered: Intention Opportunity Passion Responsibility Vocation Work Ethic

Show NotesParenting ScriptsWorkbook ExercisesInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

Here’s a surprising fact: most teens have NO idea what they want to do when they “grow up.” And even the ones who do have no idea how to get there. Unfortunately, this can make it more difficult for teens to get through college in in concise timeframe and find their place in the world. Luckily, we can help you understand how to help your teenager find their passion.

Having a vocation can mean a world of difference when it comes to helping your teen prepare for the future. A strong passion can make clear the steps your child needs to take in order to succeed in a competitive world. However, teens often view the tasks they have to complete -like math homework or going to college- as work, something that they have to do because they’re told to it. Without meaning or purpose, your teenager’s responsibilities become synonymous with another way to pass the time. 

So, how are you supposed to know how to help your teenager find their passion when It’s hard for them to distinguish between what they have to do and what they want to do. This can deter adolescents from engaging their responsibilities and prevent them from looking to the future with excitement. They may grow frustrated at having to switch jobs every two years – and in turn it makes their parents question if their teen will ever find their place in the workforce. That’s why the focus of our Talking to Teens podcast this week is vocational preparation and how to help your teenager find their passion. 

This week I spoke with Barbara Schneider, researcher and author of Becoming Adult: How Teenagers Prepare for the World of Work about career opportunities, planning for the future, and how foster a productive environment for kids. She is a distinguished professor in the College of Education and Department of Sociology at Michigan State University and the co-author of 15 books, numerous journal articles, and previous editor of Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis and Sociology of Education. If anyone knows how to help your teenager find their passion, it’s Barbara. 

Barbara’s research and teaching focus on understanding teen psychology. More specifically, how the social contexts of schools and families influence the academic and social well-being of adolescents as they move into adulthood. With a particular emphasis on improving educational opportunities for students with limited economic and social resources, her research can show you how to help your teenager find their passion. 

In the book, she conducted a study following teenagers’ journey from high school into adulthood. By focusing on how entering college shifted their perceptions of work, Schneider found that exposing teens to different experiences is how to help your teenager find their passion. Primarily, we talk about the exposure of two key insights:

  1. What Kinds of Jobs Actually Exist
  2. Balanced Perspective (Outlook) to Work

During our conversation, Barbara clued me in on how to help your teenager find their passion through exposure to broad career opportunities and a mindset prepared for the future. We also discuss the concept of work “flow,” the Path Model schematic, and different ways to access these focal points with your teen so that you can explore their vocation together. Here’s how it works:

Can you See the Future from Where You’re At? 

A primary unanticipated reason why teenagers don’t know what to do in life is because they aren’t aware of what’s out there. How are you supposed to know that you really wanted to be a film editor or a biochemist if you didn’t know those jobs existed in the first place? The answer is, you don’t! For parents, knowing how to help your teenager find their passion starts with exposing your kids to what kinds of jobs actually exist. Teens need to be made aware of all the potential options that are available to pursue because their vocation could be hiding among them. 

Exploring different kinds of occupations can help your teen identify a career they’re passionate about by following paths that experts have created in their respective fields. According to Schneider, one place you can take actionable steps to locate mentors and widen your teen’s sphere of information is within your own community! 

It’s a good idea to start broadening your teen’s awareness of careers with local options. There are shared cultural values and cognizance in communities that your child might find accessible. This might mean doing outreach in your community through basic web searches, visiting local business centers, and paying regular visits to the library, a popular cultural hub for organizing. You can also speak directly with others at communal events like concerts, holiday gatherings, and art showcases.

Schneider suggests that niche communities are also a good place to expose your teen to more opportunities because they’re more likely to find experts who are passionate about what they do. She says it’s how you can get connected to people who are animators or engineers, artisan experts with insight into a particular craft. 

Specialists can be found locally in almost any trade and truly educate you on how to help your teenager find their passion with the know-how they’ve acquired through experience. They can inform you about what programs and prerequisites your child should pursue, further exposing your teen to new potential interests. 

Exposure to experts in their field is another way that teens can learn about what options are even open to them and how to pursue those interests. Consequently, exposing your teen to broad opportunities is how to help your teenager find their passion and the actionable steps to pursue it. 

What Does Your Teen Feel About Work? 

Knowing how to help your teenager find their passion can only be accomplished if you know what their relationship to work is like. In the podcast, Barbara classifies teens into several categories that can help us understand how teens interpret their responsibilities. Chief among these classifications are “the workers” and “the players.” 

According to Barbara, workers want straight A’s and will put in the effort to get there. However, someone with a labor-intensive mindset might view their responsibilities according – work! This perspective might minimize someone’s passion for their responsibilities because they conceive agendas as a series of necessary tasks. Think of this personality as the opposite of Emerson’s proverb, “It’s not the destination. It’s the journey.” A worker is all about the destination. 

If you’re a player, all you want to do is have a good time! Players might make the most of their situation and look for a silver lining in their tasks, but they don’t perceive their workloads as such. They don’t really consider the consequences of their actions in a serious way and therefore lack a consistent ability to plan ahead. 

Exposing your teens to a balance between the two perspectives can transform how your teen comprehends their duties. When you can find a way to make it so that your interests became your main source of self-sufficiency, you’d be both excited for your job as well as aware of the consequences. Understanding how to help your teen find their passion means giving them the mindset explore their interests with determination.

You can expose your teen develop a balanced perspective on work with some rudimentary questions, such as: 

  • “What’s the most important thing in school you wish you could do more of?”
  • “Is it working in the newspaper?” Is it taking another course from a good teacher?”
  • “How can you expand on those interests and investigate work opportunities that will allow you to do more of what you love?”

These inquiries orient your child’s mindset to emphasize what’s important to them. They help your teen find meaning, purpose, and relevance in their tasks, and over time, their life’s work. When your teen is able to relate to their responsibilities with excitement and diligence, this combination develops into a passion. When this passion is applied to an understanding of the opportunities that are available to them, your teen will have a clear path to a sustainable vocation.  

There’s so Much More!

In the interview Barbara walks me through the concepts of “flow” as well as the Path Model schematic, which determines how your child can better spend their time. In addition to hearing about how to help your teenager find their passion using these effective tools, you will discover:

  • How to interrogate the effectiveness of your teen’s learning environment
  • The main factors that lead teens to attend college 
  • Developing a more productive atmosphere 

I had a great time speaking with Barbara about her research this week and all the ways how to help your teenager find their passion. Her findings are applicable to teens of any age range and they’re easy to implement in your own life. I learned so much listening to her, and I know you will, too!

Parenting Scripts

Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen

1.  What to say to a teen who’s lost their zeal:

“What’s the one thing that’s related to school that you wish you could do more of?”

-Barbara Schneider

Workbook Exercises

Step-by-step guides for applying the ideas from this interview

1. Explore Careers Together:

As Barbara Schneider and I discussed, the careers that teens think they’ll enter into is based primarily on what they’ve been exposed to. But, with a constantly changing economy, new jobs are created everyday that simply didn’t exist ten years ago. Barbara’s own research has shown the importance of exposing teens to career possibilities early on to set their expectations for the future. To help expose your teen to what is out there Barbara suggests tackling the task together. The best place to start is to first conference with your teen on their interests. What are their favorite subjects? What activities do they enjoy the most? Do they like working with people or prefer to be by themselves? Have your teen jot all these down and then circle the items they feel most strongly about. Make a plan to research together what jobs would be an intersection of your teen’s interests. If possible, make a plan to shadow a person with a relevant job or visit the workplace. For example, if you teen is really into history and art, perhaps make a trip to an art museum and have your teen grab lunch or tea with one of the directors. Bonus points if they connect on LinkedIn afterwards 🙂

2.  Identify Your Teen as  Worker, Player, or Neither:

(Members Only)

Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: The best place to start usually is the book, which is how I became familiar with you, which is Becoming Adult. And I know you have a couple other books as well, but this is the one that I’ve read. And it is about a study that you did on teenagers, following them kind of through high school and into adulthood. And looking at how their perceptions and concepts of work and what they wanted to do with their life kind of shifted and how that all played out as they then actually entered college. And even later on in their life, it sounds like you’ve continued to follow up with them. So super interested to hear about kind of how that study came about and how you then decided to turn it into a book.

Barbara: Sure. So the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, was very interested in trying to understand how young people think about college and work. It is important to say that the Sloan Foundation sent requests for proposals to a number of universities and then they reviewed these proposals. And fortunately for us our team won and that’s how we were funded from the Sloan Foundation. And we had a very different perspective on understanding these issues related to education and occupational aspirations. One is that none of us were vocational technical people. By that, I mean, we didn’t study jobs per se, but all of us had studied and looked at how young people develop in the context of their schooling environments. So we were interested in really trying to learn how schools and families and communities influence how young people think about work. And we also recognize that most young people, one don’t have a clear sense about what kind of work that they want to do.

Barbara: And number two, that the educational aspirations of young people regardless of the kind of situation that they were in all expected to get to college degree. So with those kind of backgrounds, we wanted to see if empirically those things were true. If they were what we were expecting to find. So the first thing that we wanted to do is we recognize that locations made a difference and that young people growing up in different parts of the US would have very different understandings of what work meant to them especially on the basis of the supply and demand of jobs available in the areas that they were working in.

Barbara: So we wanted an area like in Florida, where there were theme parks and the opportunities for young people to get a lot of work in that arena. We were interested in certain areas in the Midwest cities. They wanted to make sure that they had a school district in California, and we also wanted to have specialized schools. So essentially we came out with a very complex sampling design that helped us to understand the locations in which young people were growing up. We also had a rural area that we wanted to get a better handle on what rural areas look like. And that turned out to be very helpful in understanding the expectations that young people had about where they expected to go to college and what they thought they would do with their lives.

Andy: Parents are very interested in as well. How can the environment kind of shape the trajectory that kids put themselves on in their lives? And how can we provide them with an environment that will set them up for more fulfilling and hopefully successful careers doing what they want to do? And one thing that I thought was really interesting early on in this book here is that you talk about their aspirations, what the kids’ kind of want to do, and then you compare that to the census data of what jobs are actually available. And so of course it’s kind of what we would expect that more than 15% of these teenagers expect to be either a doctor or a lawyer. When there’s actually about 1% of the labor force is doctors and lawyers. So are our kids being unrealistic in their expectations and is that good or is that bad or what should you think as a parent if your kid seems to have unrealistic expectations?

Barbara: Well, I think first of all, one of the things that’s really important to understand is that today most young people overwhelmingly, most young people aspire, expect that they’re going to go to college. And most of them actually think that they’re going to get a four year degree. Even if they started a two year college that they’re going to be able to transfer and get a four year degree. One thing that’s very clear is that most kids really don’t know what they want to do, and [crosstalk 00:06:14] that it is really the case that very few of them, with exception sometimes in positions. These are kids that really do well in biology, in the sciences, and they know that they have a certain kind of commitment to helping people. They look very different than a lot of the other students, even the students that are really gifted in mathematics, physics, and those kinds of fields, biology as well. They also entertain other kinds of careers.

Barbara: I will tell you that when we ask young people about that today, the career spectrum has grown enormously. And if you go to some of the kinds of directories that the US government has on different kinds of jobs, you can just see them growing and growing and growing especially in all kinds of fields. And young people that have parents that work in these fields they are much more aware of what’s available in animation, robotics, any kinds of things that are high tech industry. And then the other you see which is really, I think that we don’t make quite enough of this right now, is that today young people really want to do more than one major in college. So they are sort of this, for the job I want, yes, I’m a good mathematician, but I think that I’ll also minor in humanities, even though it’ll take me five years to graduate from college.

Barbara: And then I’m much more likely to, if I get an MBA, or if they’re looking for somebody with a business acumen, I really would look very different, and they would like to know that I could write as well. So the idea that these young people are extraordinarily strategic, they pay a lot of attention to these different kinds of occupations. And the idea that many of them are floundering in college, I think that the notion of floundering students in college was probably okay for a certain proportion of the population and not for as many kids as are really starting to zoom in on the kinds of things they want to do. In addition to taking gap years, getting involved environmentally, thinking about different areas and places they want to travel and how they want to come back, taking them much longer time to stay in college. So that the orientation, I think of young people today as compared to the orientation that we did in the nineties is really quite different.

Andy: Congratulations to Melissa 1996. Melissa won our contest on Instagram this week, she’s getting a free one year membership to our premium podcast. That includes access to the extended ad free versions of the interviews, it also includes the word for word parenting scripts that we pull out of every interview to give you ideas of exactly what you could say to your teenager. And it includes access to the exercises that we write based on every single episode. If you want to get in on the contest, head on over to Instagram and leave us an awesome comment. We love to hear from our listeners and every week we give away a free one year membership to our favorite comment. You can find us @talkingtoteens on Instagram. If your teenager doesn’t have a morning routine to get them going in the morning, check out some of the recipes on wildfoods.co. Wild Foods focuses on super food nutrition products that they source from small farmers all around the world.

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Barbara: One thing that I pay a lot of attention is something that I call alignment. Which is to try and understand for kids that every persons, everybody’s going to college, how do kids know about what kinds of experiences in higher education they need? So if they have expectations to become a doctor, that’s going to be a hard row if you started at community college. So there are certain kinds of pathways that just have many more bumps than if in fact you took different courses in high school, did very well on them, and then applied to different kinds of schools that had majors in certain kinds of fields. I think that for me the most unfortunate part of the alignment story is what’s happening in low income and minority schools because there’s no hidden social capital. People don’t know a lot of what middle class communities and high-end communities know.

Barbara: So recently I’ve developed an app called In It To Win It. That is for young people in low income and predominantly minority communities it’s free. To basically help them learn what I call some of these hidden messages. Like what is a good strategic pathway to take when you’re leaving high school, depending on the kinds of careers that you might be interested in, the kinds of colleges you think you might want to go to. And we’re developing a whole suite of these kinds of games that you can play on your smartphone and the games really, to help young people get a sense of these different messages that are not known to every community. And I think that it’s unfortunate because the kinds of nudges and things that we’re trying to tell young people today are all pretty much forms, like can take your Facet form, but a lot of the places that some people are going to they don’t need a Facet form for. So that it is the kind of just, do you want to start in a place, a college and you’re going to live at home?

Barbara: How far away is it? Can you take classes early in the morning or what if you can’t get transportation? And most of all, when’s the drop [inaudible 00:14:41]. So if you’re having trouble, how to get out of a course early on before it becomes a black mark on your record and you have to pay for it. And also what kind of work you can do while you’re in college and have it not interfere with your studies but rather to support your education. So we’re working on those kinds of messages to help young people.

Barbara: And it all grows from this work that I did in the nineties, where I saw how very different communities were very savvy about what kind of colleges to go to, and a lot more knowledge about work. So to me, I think that if you went and started to talk to young people that are in certain kinds of communities you would be astounded about the kinds of knowledge bases that they have about different kinds of colleges. Why you go to those schools, what kind of places they would help you find certain kinds of jobs. That’s a knowledge base we want everyone to have.

Andy: That is so true. And that’s something that struck me reading your book is just how big the differences are between different communities and how likely kids are to have those experiences or to meet people who, like you just point out in here. A lot of, knowing what you want to do it comes down to knowing that that exists and there’s people that do that. And being in a community where you can get connected to people who are animators or people who are doing some sort of a niche career that is really in line with what your interests are. And if you never have the chance to get exposed to those people and see them in their element doing their thing, then you just have no idea that that is even an option open to you. And you have no idea how you would go about possibly pursuing that.

Andy: And so a lot of it, I think just comes down to experiencing things and adding more options to kind of your mental menu of what you could be doing for the next phase of your life. And if you haven’t had those experiences and haven’t added enough different options to your menu, then you feel kind of stifled or you don’t know what to do next or where to go or something. So I wonder how parents can kind of help their kids get more of those experiences or what do those experiences look like? And as a parent, how can you kind of nudge your teenager to have more of those?

Barbara: I think the most important thing that parents can do for themselves and their children is to recognize what they don’t know. And what they really don’t know about the world of work given the kind of interests that their children have. And I think that it isn’t just the case of, well, you could help your child. You can’t help your child if you don’t have the knowledge base yourself. And I think that so often today we forget that these young people are going to have multiple jobs. They’re not going to have one job in one place. It’s not going to last them their whole lifetime. And they’re going to be all kinds of considerations that are going to play into how long we’re going to keep certain people. And there are jobs that are going to come on in the next two years that are not on in or [inaudible 00:18:20] any of the other places, but they’re going to be there.

Barbara: So the real issue, it seems to me is not a question of what can parents tell their kids, but how can parents and young people together gain a different kind of knowledge base for very dramatically changing environment that we live in? And that involves becoming more actively involved in what’s going on in our planet and how we can basically ensure that people will have successful lives. And this is not a world anymore that is something where we can say to a parent, teach your child, but rather let’s teach ourselves about our world.

Barbara: And let’s teach ourselves about our world together because this isn’t something that we can put our hand on and say, well, this is a great job for you. That job might not be there by the time they finish high school, because something new will have come in its place. So I feel that the real issue and the real question you’re asking me is a question about not so much about that the kind of ways that we’ve typically thought about these things, but should really get a better handle and sense about how these different fields are changing so dramatically.

Andy: I think that is so cool. And as a parent, finding those opportunities to learn together a, I just think it’s, like you’re saying it’s helpful because things are all going to be so different constantly. It’s constantly changing that you really do need to have that attitude of constantly trying to learn. But also from a perspective of a teenager who’s really high in autonomy, it’s a lot easier for me to get on board with, “hey, let’s learn together,” than for a parent to say, “hey, let me tell you what I know.” And so I think just that approach is so powerful on all levels and is something that parents should definitely adopt, if they can.

About Barbara Schneider

Barbara Schneider received her PhD from Northwestern University and over the course of her research career has published more than 100 academic papers, in addition to author or co-authoring 10 books. Her notable titles include The Ambitious Generation and Transforming Schools. Barbara is currently at Michigan State University as the John A. Hannah University Distinguished Professor, where she continues her research on the inequalities faced by teens of different socio-economic neighborhoods.