Too much choice vs too little: Starting working life has never been easy

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Did you have it all figured out when you were 16?

When we’re little, we dream of becoming astronauts, princesses, singers, vets, actors and adventurers. 

But by the time the end of schooling arrives and they’re forced to choose a career to study for or apply for jobs, the decision made by today’s youngsters on which field to spend the rest of our lives in can seem far harder than it did as starry-eyed children.

These days, kids are just two years into high school when they have to choose the subjects they need to reach their chosen career destinations, whether it be a trade or a job that requires a university degree. (This is all before they then have to make further subject choices, choose the further education they pursue, choose the work experience or internships they’ll apply for, create a multi-media resume with which to wow employers etc, etc.)

Australia has no official retirement age but by 2035 workers will need to be 70 to access the Age Pension, which means today’s new job-starters will be working for at very least 50 years. Is it fair to expect a 16-year-old, or even younger teenager, to make a choice on what they may wish to do for the rest of their lives? 

And how did teenagers cope in years past, when the decision was both tougher in terms of life circumstances, but easier in terms of choice?

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Just 30 or so years ago, entering the workforce at an even younger age was common, with many people starting work 15 or even younger. Imagine sending some of today’s 13-year-olds out to work in an office or factory! But with fewer social safety nets, sending a teenager to work was a financial necessity for many families in the past, and choice of career hardly came into it.

There were also greater social barriers to advancement – without the types of funding available today, kids from poorer families usually had little or no way of attending university, no matter how intelligent they may have been.

There was more of an emphasis on the family business, too with many children following their father or mother into a trade. And there was less emphasis on qualifications or the need for a degree – getting practical experience or having a mentor to ‘show you the ropes’ was often enough to break in to a new profession.

Is there too much career choice too young these days? Was it simpler when work choices were more restricted? Or did you resent being unable to follow your own career dreams?