Articles > Degrees of Anxiety

Degrees of Anxiety
Globe & Mail, April 25, 2008

Barbara Moses, Ph.D, is an international speaker, work/life expert, and best-selling author of Dish: Midlife Women Tell the Truth About Work, Relationships, and the Rest of Life.

It's that time of year again: graduation for a fresh crop of university students - and a fresh wave of panic as they ask themselves: "Now what? What do I do with my life?"

Faced with a plethora of choices, they feel they need to get it right - to either choose the right career path or at least the right next step. But they don't have a clue what that path or step is.

In a recent career-planning workshop, one new graduate captured the confusion when she described the next moves she was considering: "Maybe I'll go to fashion school or maybe I'll do an MBA. Maybe I'll waitress in Europe or maybe I'll teach English in Japan. Or maybe I'll just get a proper job."

Twentysomething career angst is not new. I spent my twenties obsessing about what I should do. But the career and life choices were more limited then, and there weren't as many suffering from career confusion - most of my friends had a clear plan. Today, confusion is much more widespread.

And it's not limited to new grads. On my online career self-assessment tool, about 70 per cent of white-collar workers in their twenties have answered "yes" to the statement: "I am confused about what I really want to do."

There are no major differences between those who are in professions, such as law and accounting, and those who come from less career-oriented backgrounds, such as social science, general business and arts educations.

The emotional turmoil of this confusion can be disconcerting. This generation largely has been protected from self-doubt and failure by overprotective parents who helped their kids solve every problem. It's the first time that many of these overprogrammed, high-achieving young people have been faced with a blank canvas. They are ill-equipped to deal with ambiguity.

The result is that some are making significant decisions that will greatly affect their health and happiness later on just for the sake of reducing their discomfort today. A friend's daughter who graduated two years ago says that some of her friends are getting married because they don't know what else to do.

Other choices involve quick-fix solutions. Some, she says, are considering becoming a teacher, not so much because they want to teach but because at least it's a plan.

Many factors fuel the confusion. For some, it is distaste for a job that interferes with their lifestyle. They've listened to friends in first jobs complain about 60-hour weeks and the meaninglessness of their work.

More importantly, they've witnessed firsthand the effects of work demands on chronically tired and distracted parents, who sacrificed family time for career commitments. They refuse to go down that road.

Parents just add to the anxiety when they say things like: "The gravy train of us footing the bill is now officially over. Grow up and get a job."

These comments are particularly distressing for a generation that largely didn't rebel against their parents and who often refer to mom and dad as their best friends, and want to please them.

In a recent career-planning workshop, several young professionals confided that the only reason they were continuing in jobs they didn't like was out of fear of parental disapproval if they pursued a riskier employment or lifestyle route.

Parents do indeed meddle. Since they're hyper-involved in every other aspect of their children's lives, from university choices to girlfriend/boyfriend problems, why shouldn't they be involved in career decisions?

I often get calls from parents searching for career counselling for their children. But sometimes it's the parents, not the children, who are anxious. When I ask if their kids feel they have a problem, they often say no, or confess that they are making the call without their child's knowledge.

Of course, the default choice for many twentysomethings who don't know what they want to do is to continue doing what they know best - being a student and going to grad school.

I completed two graduate degrees because, at the time, it seemed like as good an idea as any. I didn't have a clear vision of how this would translate into an actual job.

But the relative costs of fees were much less then, in the seventies and early eighties, and even though I didn't know what I wanted to do, I had a sense it would be a stepping stone in the right direction.

Today, the cost of making a mistake is much greater.

Significant financial pressures of student debt and graduate school fees add to the sense of urgency and anxiety about making a sensible decision.

As one 25-year-old workshop participant contemplating law school said: "What if I decide to become a lawyer and then I realize I hate it? Then what? It's not like I can go to law school for $100."

Young people, in contrast to older people, are more likely to evaluate their own thoughts and behaviours against those of others (a phenomenon known in psychology circles as social comparison). When they look at friends who seem to have always known they would be a doctor or a lawyer, they feel inadequate. "Everyone else has it together," they tell themselves. "What's wrong with me?"

The truth is that young people who always knew exactly what they want to do are a minority. And pretending to have it completely together is less common than it used to be.

Today's young are much more candid about their career anxieties. Ten years ago, when I told young professionals in career-planning workshops that if they felt confused about what they want to do, they were not alone, I would be met by embarrassed and uncomfortable glances.

A few months ago, when I made the same comment in a workshop, a 24-year-old interrupted: "We know we are all confused. That's all we ever talk about."
This willingness to openly discuss career angst is good news as it alleviates the feeling that you are the only one in the world with this problem.

As gut-wrenching as it may be, there may be a silver lining to all this career confusion: In my professional experience, those who enjoyed smooth sailing in their choices - university, then grad school, with a clear career direction in mind - often pay a price later.

Having never grappled with the big question "What should I do with my life?," they flounder at midlife. They reflect on the safe and predictable path they took, and wonder what they missed or if there might have been a better career choice.

Career confusion ultimately serves people well. It leaves them more open to experimenting with different options that can help them gain broader insight into their strengths and preferences, and helps build a foundation for making sound decisions.

It also speaks to some key attributes - the ability to deal with ambiguity and to harbour self-doubt, for instance - that are core to long-term career and life success.


Suffering from twentysomething career angst? Here are some suggestions on how to deal with it.

It's your life and you are a grownup now - at least you should be.

Are you more keen to start your professional life, or do you want to take off on an adventure? Go with what feels right.

Think about what you should do now, not what should you do with your life.

You will have many years ahead to be sensible. This is the time to experiment. In 10 years, will you rue the fact that you didn't try to make a go of it with your music, or trek through Thailand?

Don't overestimate the consequences of not knowing what you want to do. Very few people will say that if only they had figured out their career direction five years earlier than they did, their lives would have turned out differently.

Unless you have a vision of what you hope to accomplish, you're wasting your time and money jumping right into grad school. You don't have to have a clear job vision, but you should have a sense that graduate school will contribute to options in a field that seems of interest.

By the time they're 30, most people will have one hideous career experience under their belt. All jobs, whether good or bad, offer insights about what you need to be happy and engaged. The trick is to distill what made the job a bad match so that you avoid those work features in the future. It's also best to abandon a bad job before your sense of competence is destroyed.

Don't assume everyone else has it together. Some people make career choices earlier than others but it is perfectly normal at this stage not to know what you want to be.

Just as there is no such thing as perfect love, there is no such thing as a perfect job.

To help make a better job match, think about what you enjoy and are good at; which courses were your favourites at school and why; what you liked and didn't like about summer and part-time jobs; what your friends, co-workers and supervisors say about you; what kinds of environments you work best in.

Can't decide between a law degree or an MBA? Teacher or librarian? Speak to people who took those routes. Find out what it feels like to do the work they do and the personality of that work. Is it fast- or slow-paced? Crisis-driven or strategic? Lots of people interaction or work behind closed doors?

There are no guarantees in life. You make the best choices given the information you have at the time. Worst case: It doesn't work out and you move on to try something else.

If you are really confused and can't deal with the turmoil of not knowing what you want to do, consider consulting a professional career counsellor or coach.

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