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Let's tell kids the truth

Updated: Oct 7, 2022

Parents in the UK need to wake up and stop filling young people’s minds with hopeless and unrealistic dreams.

At the recent Leaders Council roundtable discussion on the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill, one of the key concerns raised was the idea that it’s difficult to attract people to work in construction, manufacturing and engineering.

Well, is it really any surprise? This is a country where kids are told ‘you can be whoever you want to be’. It’s a country where fifty percent of the population are sent off the university, often to study degrees that have no practical value. And it’s a country where young people spend so much of their time engrossed in TikTok and other forms of social media, dreaming of ‘going viral’ or ‘becoming a celebrity’ rather than contributing to society.

Think about that message, ‘you can be whoever you want to be.’ It might be well-intentioned, but it places a huge amount of pressure on a young person and totally skews their perception of reality. If someone believes they can be whoever they want to be, why would they strive to be a drainage specialist or something similar? And if they end up in such a job, why would they consider it to be anything other than failure?

There’s nothing wrong with having dreams, as long as you’re taught to distinguish them from real life.

I’m talking to the parents here, rather than the children. You might want your child to be a superstar actor or singer but, if you present normal jobs as a form of failure, don’t be surprised if you end up with a twenty-one-year-old son or daughter who refuses to get off the sofa.

All human beings have limitations, including your child. There’s nothing wrong with this. There are things that some people are better at than others. That’s ok. If you tell your child they can do anything, you’re not setting them free, you are trapping them. Regardless of how liberal, loving, and democratic you are, your child’s life will always have limits because of their character traits and the reality of the world in which they grow up. As a parent, you need to make your peace with this and encourage your child to do the same.

You need to teach them that hard work, skill acquisition, learning and earning money are things to be proud of. There’s nothing wrong with doing a normal job for a normal wage.

In my experience as a career coach over the past eighteen years I have noticed that the best way forward with young people is through the process of elimination.

In the UK this process of elimination starts at 13 when children choose their GCSE options. Switzerland has a similar process of elimination. The majority of students will join the Vocational Education and Training (VET) program, where they learn skills in school and are able to see how these skills are applied professionally via first-hand experience in companies that provide apprenticeships. After achieving a VET diploma students decide either to start their career or continue with further education.

With the results they achieve at 13, only one third of fourteen to fifteen year olds are able to continue with the academic pathway. This is a sensible and effective system that quite rightly tells young people there is no shame in being more suited to non-academic learning pathways.

In the UK, everyone is forced down the academic pathway, whether they love it or hate it, until they are eighteen, at which point half go to university and the others are seen as some sort of failure. Huge amounts of this latter group end up unemployed and dissatisfied. And so too do a good proportion of university graduates, who end up feeling very let down when they realise their degree in sociology from a third-rate university isn’t much use in the jobs market.

Thankfully, the UK government has decided to bring back the cap on student numbers for universities, which will go some way to addressing this problem. But they should go further and encourage universities to offer courses which focus on practical skills, as well as academic.

If we want children to pursue careers in “less glamorous” industries, we must instil an appreciation for the decent, hardworking people who keep this country going. The cleaners, sewage drainers, caretakers, builders, and other professions. The COVID lockdowns showed us how important these people are, and the current war in Europe puts into stark contrast the real value of someone like a plumber versus a TikToker. If image is important to young people, I would argue that a lot of labourers look fitter, happier and healthier than many of these influencers.

Parents and professionals must connect with 13-15 year olds and explain this in an engaging manner, in a language they understand. If we fail to do this, teenagers will continue to fall under the illusion that fame, glory and more importantly meaning and happiness can be found through the life of a TikToker. We will end up with a generation who have reached for the stars and ended up on the sofa.

Rather than telling children they can be whoever they want to be, we should help them to be the best versions of themselves.


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