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Stop the myth of the linear life path

March is the peak season for choosing your education. The application deadline for youth and higher educations is right around the corner. Within the end of the month, more than 100,000 young people and adults will have started to chase their plans for the future

Photo: Petra Kleis from ZetlandRie Thomsen
DPU, Aarhus University

Photo: Petra Kleis from Zetland

Photo: Mikkel HagstrømMathilde Tronegård
Managing Director
Study and Career Guidance, Denmark

Photo: Mikkel Hagstrøm

We both work with young people and educational counselling. One of us as a professor and the other as a managing director. Both of us have academic degrees and before our current positions, we have previously worked as consultant, teacher, leader, Ph.D. student, assistant professor and boss among other positions.

There is a common thread running through our respective LinkedIn profiles and our resumés. Education directly precedes jobs like a straight line. However, that is not how the real world works and we would like to debunk the myth of a linear life path.

The CVs do not reveal the story of someone dreaming of becoming a veterinarian only to find out that the smell of burnt blood was too overwhelming. It does not reveal all the temporary jobs such as nursery assistant, egg packer, petrol pump attendant, receptionist or ridging potatoes. Or of the interest in journalism that was extinguished by other interests. Or of an otherwise contented teacher who found inspiration in a meeting with educational and vocational guidance counselling. LinkedIn does not tell you about a divorce that forcefully changed everything or how the decision of a partner to change jobs led to a new educational programme.

All young people encounter the study and career counsellors from Study and Career Guidance Denmark during their upper secondary education, and some during their gap year too. The counsellors talk about education, career and dreams about the future and the many different paths from which to choose. When the young people explain what they have gained from the counselling, their answers are as follows:

“I have found out that there are many possibilities. I now have more ideas in case my first choice doesn’t work out.”

“The choice of education isn’t crucial. It is merely one choice out of many. Also, you are not bound to your education. That thought gave me some peace of mind.“

Many young people are overwhelmed by the amount of available study programmes to choose from. They are concerned with choosing the right programme in the first try and they tell us that they fear that the choice is permanent. They, erroneously, think that life is linear and pre-planned. They are victims of the myth of a linear life.

It is not young people’s fault. Over the years the politicians, the educational institutions and even the educational counsellors have fuelled this fire. We are talking plans, portfolios, clarification, and choices and about being one step ahead regarding predictable career paths. All the small, bumpy and curvy paths disappear in this equation. To some young people it might come across as though society expects everyone to have an elaborated master plan for the rest of their life already in their twenties or even earlier.

However, the Danish educational system is quite flexible and filled with open doors. Young people can change their educations, specialise or go back to university to add to their knowledge now or later in life. Their education leads to many different types of jobs and they will most likely change their jobs many times throughout their life. Maybe also their line of business. Denmark is already one of the nations most open to changing jobs and trade.

We can help the young people to be open towards doubt and unpredictability. Teach them to be open to possibilities that they might not have expected. Encourage them to be curious and visit schools, universities and businesses. Furthermore, we can teach them to worry less about dropping out and focus more on finding the right fit. Because many of those who drop out of their studies end up choosing a path that is a better fit for them.

Therefore, here is a suggestion. Tell young people about your own educational and professional path and about the doubt that accompanies it. Show them all the bumpy and curvy roads. Release some of the pressure and help bunking the myth about the linear life path by sharing your story using #twistedcareer, so everyone can see an example of the curvy road.

A career can go up, down, left or right. Young people can choose one direction, then another and then another again. Just as we have. If they belong to the group of people who want to plan things, that is perfectly fine. However, it is good to do it with a pencil and an eraser just in case.

last modified Jun 30, 2020