Posted November 21, 2021 by Mark Perna
Did you pick your career—or did your parents guide you to it? A new study uncovers the extent of parental influence on the career choices of Gen-X, Millennials and Gen-Z. Mark’s article, “Not Your Parents’ Career—Or Is It? Parents Exert Significant Influence On Kids’ Career Choices,” published at Forbes.com on November 16, 2021.
Parents everywhere want the best for their kids—and they’ll often move heaven and earth to help their child succeed. But just how far does their power reach when it comes to the career pathway their kid chooses?
A new study by Joblist examines the extent of parental influence on education and career choices for currently employed Gen-X, Millennial and Gen-Z individuals. And this influence is, in a word, profound. A majority (65%) of respondents today work in the field their parents wanted for them. And even when young people chose a path other than what their parents wanted, most didn’t do it lightly.
As a society, we tend to think that career exploration is something that happens near the end of high school as a young person prepares for the next chapter of life—whether that’s higher education, industry training, directly into the workforce or another path. In my work with educational organizations across North America, I promote the idea that career exploration ought to start much sooner. And it seems that many parents agree.
Though only 6% of the survey’s respondents said their parents started talking to them about careers at age five or younger, that number jumps to 24% for ages six to nine. Nearly 35% report that the topic came up when they were 10–15. However, another 35% say the conversation didn’t begin until they were 16 or older.
Career exploration is too important to be tacked on as an afterthought near the end of high school. It’s a major facet of the self-discovery that children need to experience on their journey toward maturity. And needless to say, their education and career choices will affect the rest of their lives. Parents understand the stakes and it’s little wonder that most are starting the conversation young.
Kids who grow up in a home where thinking ahead, dreaming big and setting goals are normalized activities will bring all those skills to the fork in the road. The earlier the conversation starts, the better prepared they’ll be to make the best choice when that moment arrives.
Of the various strategies parents used to convince their children of the best career path, almost 58% of parents talked about the importance of the career they preferred, with another 53% also discussing the benefits for the family as a whole. On a positive note, 37% of respondents said that their parents’ passion for their own career inspired their career direction.
But not all methods of influence are equal. Almost a quarter of parents tried to use guilt to motivate their child to choose their preferred career pathway—a method that could backfire in many cases. Gen-X reported the most guilting by their parents in the area of career choices. A good income was the biggest reason that parents (55%) said that they promoted a particular career, which 66% of their kids suspected.
To college or not to college—for a majority of Millennials and Gen-Zers, this question was answered for them by their parents. Almost 58% of Millennials said they felt forced to attend college by their parents, closely followed by 57% of Gen-Z. Gen-X isn’t far behind at 48% who reported parental pressure toward higher education.
With the best of intentions, parents who pushed their child to attend college may have done many of them a disservice. Student loans are the fastest-growing category of debt today, with educational debt in America reaching a staggering $1.57 trillion—and rising. The average amount owed by college graduates is just under $39k per borrower. In that number are those who took out loans to attend college, but weren’t able to finish their degree and are now burdened with the debt—and no way to adequately repay it.
Eighty-two percent of all respondents said their parents pushed them toward white-collar professions, while another 57% said their parents wanted them to enter the same field where they worked. Information/technology and business/finance were the top two fields which parents promoted—and interestingly, also the top two fields in which the survey respondents found themselves working today. Sixty-five percent of respondents ended up in the field their parents wanted them to enter.
Even if it doesn’t feel like it sometimes, parents can have an immense impact on their child’s future life and career. Mom, dad—they really are listening, even to the things you aren’t saying. So it’s critical to use that influence wisely.
As a dad, I understand the temptation to sway our kids toward what we believe is best. It’s a delicate balance between our greater life experience and their emerging interests and strengths. That’s why the career conversation is just that: a conversation. It’s not a monologue where the child is a passive recipient of our hopes and dreams for their future. Our role is to educate ourselves first about the vast range of viable careers available today—and then plant seeds that may or may not take root. Ultimately, that part’s not up to us.
‘What do you love to do?’ and ‘what do you do well?’ are two questions to get the conversation started. As a parent, it can be tempting to answer these questions for our kid—after all, who knows them better than we do? But if your children are anything like mine, they never stop surprising you.
Empower their voice in the career conversation by asking questions and then truly listening to the answers. Because a meaningful career conversation is a dialogue—not a lecture.