Your likely career path in a 21st Century economy.

Myths die hard. One that still holds sway is that the path to success and stability is that the key to life is to study hard, nail your SAT, go to a good college, find your true calling and you’ll be set for the rest of your life.

Young adults are finding out today that reality paints a very different picture. The unemployment rate for young adults is more than double the national unemployment rate. Those that set their minds to tune into one channel—finding a job within their major field of study—are dropping out of the ranks of job seekers or accepting the low-paying service jobs that many of them filled back in high school.

A related and possibly more dangerous myth is to write off the problem to a temporary downturn in the economy. The problem with that myth is that “the economy” itself is a myth; the truth is that there are thousands of “small economies” that really determine a person’s employability. Geology majors are likely doing well if they’re willing to move to North Dakota and take advantage of the energy boom in that state. On the flip side, nursing grads are having a very difficult time finding work in the Seattle area due to the fact that all of the local hospitals are going through massive reorganizations and realignments as they try to cope with the uncertainty surrounding the economic future of health care.

Nursing grads unable to find work! Who would have thought?

Young adults need to realize that a life plan organized around a single focus is not a very smart option in the 21st Century. The world economy is in flux. Ongoing developments in technology ensure that the employment situation will be a creative-destructive cycle spinning ever faster in the future. The job you had your heart set on when you started your major may not even exist by the time you graduate, and no field is exempt from this hard reality. As Nate Silver so brilliantly demonstrates in The Signal and the Noise, human beings are pretty lousy at predicting the future, and economic forecasts are among the most unreliable of all human predictions.

The truth is that this is a challenge that affects all of the generations, not just young adults. Mid-career professionals may find that their once clear career path has vanished. Late-career adults find that their experience in a particular field is no longer valued, due to either age discrimination or allowing their comfort to blind them to the fact that continuous learning is a necessity in a fast-changing economy.

So, we all share the problem, but lucky for us, we all have the solution within. There is no law, genetic or societal, that says that human beings have to be just one thing. We are all creatures of many interests, so why limit ourselves to a single interest when we look for employment opportunities? In today’s world, Plan A may not work and even Plan B may turn out to be a losing proposition. All working adults, whatever their age, need to continually expand and explore their interests so that they have a Plan C, D and E at their disposal.

This is why I highly recommend that every working-age adult complete The Strong Interest Inventory. In its simplest sense, The Strong helps a person visualize the breadth and depth of life interests. While the Strong will also give you a list of ten professions that are most promising for you in light of your interests, I have found that its real value is making people re-engage with life interests that they may have shoved to the side by shifting to a single-minded pursuit of employment.

When the watchword for today’s economy is “Who knows?”, staying in touch with the full array of our interests may be the key to securing a steady income stream. You may find that the thing you’ve always considered a hobby is suddenly in great demand in the job market; you may even find that the hobby is such a passion that you are motivated to try to turn in into a profitable business. Perhaps there was something you loved to do in high school but put to the side because at the time you weren’t getting any validation for it. Realize that what is in vogue now may not be in vogue ten years from now, and that there are more important reasons for you to pursue an interest than the search for validation from others.

So, if you haven’t done so (or haven’t done so in years), take The Strong Interest Inventory from a certified practitioner. There are many career counselors in both private practice and inside the career centers of higher education who are Strong-certified and have additional resources to help you figure out your options.

One final piece of advice: don’t take The Strong or go to a career counselor with the sole purpose of finding a job. Go to find out who you are. Ironically, that may be a much more successful approach to dealing with the future.

Photo Credit: © Focusphoto | Stock Free Images &Dreamstime Stock Photos


With the economy in a funk and employment opportunities limited, there are a lot of unhappy people in today’s workplaces. The message of recent workplace surveys seems to be, “As soon as things turn around, I’m getting the hell out of here.”

This attitude is rather sad. It implies that we are paralyzed until this abstract thing called “the economy” changes. Because we have no control over that (and neither do our so-called leaders), it would seem that we have entered a stage of practiced helplessness in our working lives. We believe we can’t make any progress or find more satisfying options until and unless there is a magical turnaround in things beyond our control.

We tend to start our search for alternative work with the question, “What’s out there?” when we should be asking ourselves, “What do I really want to do?” This is always a mistake because it increases the odds that we’ll wind up with something that may be a little better than what we had but is still a drag on the psyche and not what we really want.

You don’t have to let the economy control you or define you. Use this period of stuckness in the economy to decide what you really want and what it’s going to take to get there. Think hard about what kind of work makes you happy and what sort of people you want to work with. Explore the fabulous O*Net Database for career options and the educational requirements attached to those options. Talk to people who have the kinds of jobs you want to have and find out how they secured those jobs. Consider alternatives to standard jobs like freelancing or opening a business if that appeals to you.

It may take years for the economy to turn around, but taking action to move towards achieving your dream will accomplish two things. First, it will make you better prepared to jump on the unexpected opportunities that arise even in a weak economy. More importantly, it will give you the feeling of making progress, of moving forward, of having a purpose beyond holding down a job that just pays the bills. And while you’re moving forward, make sure you pursue more than one option. Given the current speed of the job destruction-creation cycle, you don’t want to put all of your energy into preparing for a specific job that might not exist in a few years.

So, keep an open mind and open your eyes to the possibilities and passions inside you. Don’t get stubborn and affix yourself to a single possibility. Take the time to define what you really want and filter your choices through your true desires. You may have to settle for a while, but if you keep pressing and refuse to give up, you might increase the odds that you will wind up with something that makes you pretty happy.