Dear Dr. Wes and Katie: I was troubled by one sentence in your column on drunken driving. You described Jordan as “a good student who I suspect will eventually knock back a six-figure salary.” I think you wanted to say you expected Jordan to be productive/have a rewarding career/do good things — something more than, even other than, financial success.
The message that making money equals success is rampant, and I believe we should counter it every chance we get. I enjoy your column and always learn something.
Katie: I couldn’t agree more with your fear that adolescents are forced to make too many life decisions based on future financial worries. A bulging salary isn’t worth spending one’s life waiting desperately for retirement.
Unfortunately, some income is necessary for survival. A career should have meaning both to the individual and within the market. Finding a way to combine what we love doing and what will support us over a lifetime is a key point of post-secondary education.
In November, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor made a cameo appearance on Sesame Street to discuss this, telling pink Muppet and aspiring princess Abby Cadabby, “Pretending to be a princess is fun, but it is definitely not a career.” She went on to describe the hard work and training that goes into establishing a meaningful career.
Abby’s disappointment didn’t last long because she soon found a new goal to pursue: a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. Though no one mentioned the low job-placement rates among American law schools, Sotomayor’s advice was valuable and heartfelt. Yet when we try to replace children’s dreams with concerns about the “real world,” we risk pushing them toward careers that weigh more in dollars and public opinion than in personal satisfaction.
I, like Abby Cadabby, once dreamed of being a princess. I read books about princesses and found that I loved literature so much that I began to read other genres and write stories of my own. Now, reading and writing are integral parts of my future plans, though neither activity is sweeping in the cash these days.
Success isn’t a measure of money or social prominence, but of how people put their talents to use for themselves and society.
Dr. Wes: It’s not surprising how often this is coming up lately. Unfortunately, I don’t know whether “Jordan” will do anything good or meaningful, just that he or she is ambitious, smart and skilled in an area of study that generates large salaries.
Jordan is also interested in traveling to Eastern Europe and working in an orphanage, as did former Double Take columnist Ben Markley. Each of us who has the means should give back some of what we are given, and I appreciate that Jordan has that as part of a wider life plan.
One can do meaningful things without a large salary or traveling to Romania. Family Promise right here in Lawrence needs your help working with homeless families year-round, and there are numerous other examples of deserving organizations here and in every community. However, kids today don’t have the option of pursuing a career that ONLY represents their highest ideals, lest they end up on the receiving end of these charitable services.
It’s actually not that difficult to strike a balance between these two demands. Teens wanting to pursue a financially viable career might consider geology and resource extraction. America is about to achieve something unimaginable — energy self-sufficiency through natural gas fracking and lateral oil drilling. This opens 20 years to 30 years of career options in related industries including accounting, law, engineering and business management.
But what if your child opposes fracking because she worries about its environmental impact? Great. There will be plenty of that work to do also in terms of environmental engineering, civil litigation and public policy. And part of that self-sufficiency comes from energy conservation, another growth industry.
I’m not trying to force kids into any career. I’m only suggesting you start by examining growth trends (available through the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics) and find something within a viable trend that is personally meaningful. That way our kids can support themselves across a lifetime while getting up every day excited to go to work.