How do you explain to a teenager what it’s like to work for a living? Even articulate people are hard pressed to describe what they do at work, and the skills and aptitudes needed to do that work. I know, I’ve asked lots of people. Chris Hadfield, in the video above, does a great job of explaining why asking a young person what they want to do for a living an unfair question.
We tend to resort to platitudes and generalities and gloss over the negatives. We are also flooded with popular culture depictions of work through movies and television, often those with high perceived drama – politics, law, medicine, law enforcement, cuisine (joke, sort of) – that bear little relation to our own working lives. And, at least in my house growing up, there was little to no discussion about work and careers. My general sense is that young people have little to go on when it comes to choosing a career, and, that necessary first step, choosing an education.
As I wrote in my first blog, I grew up in a household where I was expected to go to university. That in itself is an interesting social construct – what I would call the expectations of the middle class and up. There is a lot of back and forth about how to define the middle class, mostly framed in terms of income (see this Maclean’s article, Who Belongs to Canada’s Middle Class), but it can also be defined as a set of values – how you dress, talk, eat, exercise; where you live; what kind of work you do. These attributes define the tribe, and distinguish it from other, different tribes. It’s considered impolite in Canada to even discuss class, but because my father was such an outsider, I grew up with a strong sense of what we, as a family, aspired to, and where we fell short.
If you grow up in the bubble of the middle class, and work in a white collar job, you tend to assume everyone has university degree. Of course, statistically, that’s not true: as another Maclean’s article points out, only about a quarter of the Canadian population has a degree (although half the population has post-secondary education).
I read voraciously in high school, but was not strong in math. I imagined that I was going to become another James Joyce, not that I actually spent time writing. Just the opposite: I was paralyzed by a crippling perfectionism that meant it was better not to try than to fall short. So, unconcerned with the practical consequences, I opted to study English Literature at the University of Toronto.
Something unexpected happened. My father, who had always said he would help us financially through university, now clarified that he would not support something as frivolous as English. This was a wakeup call for my brother and sister, who were determined to move away for school and now knew they had to choose subjects that were, or at least appeared to be, practical and career-oriented (chemistry and economics, respectively).
Since I could live at home and had enough summer earnings to pay tuition, this was not a complete road block. This very-late clarification by my father made it clear he did not fully subscribe to the middle class ethos of helping your children to succeed, even if it required self-sacrifice or deferred gratification. It did, in a stark way, highlight the difference between studying the liberal arts versus something more practical.