Now What? Colleges, Careers, and Life Choices

My wife and I remember the day quite well. Our identical twin sons came home from school one afternoon—only a couple of months before their high school graduation—and announced they had decided to enter the United States Marine Corps. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 were still fresh in our nation’s psyche and military operations were already underway in both Afghanistan and Iraq. As parents, we had visions of college and “safe” jobs with a future. When I sat down with our sons, I wanted to make sure they clearly understood all the inherent risks associated with the decision (i.e., a parental lecture), including the reality that Marines, in particular, are usually the first to go into any combat environment. One of my sons looked at me and calmly said, “Dad, how do you know God might not be asking me to die for my country?” End of conversation; now, we dialogue with God on our knees.

When parents observe their teenage sons and daughters wrestling with important choices pertaining to the future, it can be tempting to step in and “do the work” for them. Perhaps this is because of the tendency many parents have to vicariously derive at least part of their own identities and worth through the lives of their children. Mothers and fathers must allow their children to establish a measure of ownership and accountability. A fundamental axiom of human nature to keep in mind is that people usually take better care of what they think belongs to them, including their decisions. For some, it means finding the right career path with job security and for others, the desire to simply live out their dreams. However, it is equally important for parents not to take for granted that young people are automatically informed consumers. The critical key is to find a healthy orientation between providing useful information and guidance and then balancing that with personal responsibility.

The years between 18 and 24 are often characterized by a heightened awareness of identity development. Typical questions might be: Who am I? What do I really want to do in life? What am I good at? What and who is important to me? This process establishes the foundation for one’s unique individuality, which is then more fully expressed during later adulthood. From a developmental perspective, several important tasks must be addressed by young people. These include achieving an adaptive autonomy from one’s parents; formulating a healthy gender identity; internalizing an appropriate set of values, beliefs, and morals; and making primary career choices. Although the process is often seen as influenced by familial, social, and school-based factors, the concept of spirituality as it relates to career development is becoming increasingly relevant because of the complex, transitional dynamics and interconnectedness normally associated with this period in a person’s life.

In addition to understanding normal developmental stages, there is a need to acknowledge that the 21st century is increasingly characterized by globalization, the management of information, rapid technological advances, and sociocultural change. It is a fast-paced, push-button, instant everything world. While many young adults are still motivated by potential paychecks, altruistic needs remain high on the list, especially for the millennial generation. The implication is that young people entering the workforce have a significant desire to seek meaning, purpose, and fulfillment from their roles. Indeed, the word vocation is derived from the Latin “vocare” which means “to call.” For many, their career paths are not merely something they do, but also incorporate a deep and passionate sense of calling.

For young adults to effectively navigate these sometimes-turbulent waters, research continues to focus on the importance of self-efficacy as a good predictor of proactive career decision-making. Self-efficacy typically refers to an individual’s ability to successfully approach tasks associated with making choices and to engage them with a high degree of confidence and commitment. Positive family and social support are often difference makers. Young adults need to have the freedom to explore their options, to ask their questions, to develop their self-identities, and to do so in an atmosphere of support and respect.

As John Trent and Gary Smalley point out in their timeless book, The Gift of the Blessing, not very much has been written about how young adults or their parents should approach the reality of leaving home. The authors, drawing on the Old Testament concept of “blessing” among Jewish families, describe the process as incorporating the elements of meaningful touch, a spoken message, expressing high value, something that pictures a special future, and an active commitment to see the blessing come to pass. They further identify certain home environments where the blessing can become distorted. Reasons include an inequitable distribution in how love and affirmation are expressed, when the blessing is placed out of reach, where the blessing is exchanged for a burden, when the home is more like an emotional minefield, where unfair family roles are in operation, and where only part of the blessing is received. The good news for parents is that there are often ongoing opportunities to affirm and bless children, at least in terms of self-concept and in giving permission to rewrite their life scripts.

God Himself recognized the need and value of affirming His Son. As John the Baptist was lifting Jesus out of the Jordan, God’s own voice lovingly expressed His approval and said, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:17, BSB) When our two sons headed off to boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina, 17 summers ago—knowing that for a time, they would be outranked even by the mosquitoes there—we simply said, “We love you. We believe in you. We bless you. We are so proud of you.” The letting go process is crucial to the cycle of life, and while harbors, much like homes, are usually places of safety and comfort, they are not what ships were built for. May we always keep the next generation in mind and pass the baton with grace, wisdom, and a joyful blessing.

Eric Scalise, PhD, currently serves as Senior Vice President and Chief Strategy Officer (CSO) with Hope for the Heart. He is also the President of LIV Consulting, LLC, the former Senior Vice President for the American Association of Christian Counselors (AACC) and former Department Chair for Counseling Programs at Regent University. Dr. Scalise is a Licensed Professional Counselor and a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist with over 42 years of clinical and professional experience in the mental health field, and he served six years on the Virginia Board of Counseling under two governors. Specialty areas include professional/pastoral stress and burnout, combat trauma and PTSD, marriage and family issues, grief and loss, addictions and recovery, leadership development, and lay counselor training. He is a published author, adjunct professor at several Christian universities, conference speaker, and frequently works with organizations, clinicians, ministry leaders, and churches on a variety of issues.

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