OPINION5 July 2010

Teens facing tough choices ahead

This post explores how the recession is impacting on further education and career choices

Thirteen years ago when I was doing my A-Levels and making decisions about university, my teachers’ advice was unanimous: choose a subject you enjoy. It didn’t occur to me to think beyond the next few years towards what I’d do with my degree, my priorities were simple: find an interesting subject with relatively few lectures and classes, choose a university in London, find the best halls of residence and, most importantly, prepare to have fun.  I was encouraged to see this choice as a rite of passage.

If I was filling in my UCAS form today, I’m almost certain my priorities would be totally different.  With the job market still in a pitiful condition (the number of finalists getting a job at the end of 2009 was one third fewer than in 2008 ) and higher education fees on the rise, today’s school leavers are faced with a much more serious set of decisions.  To consider university first and foremost a rite of passage is a luxury of the past; nowadays teens must think pragmatically about university as a route to a career.  There is evidence to suggest that during the recession, course choices have shifted to ‘harder’ subjects.  And it’s not just choices of university course: A-Level choices are also toughening up as younger teens are also starting to plan ahead.  Maths, economics and physics, for instance, have become more popular whilst drama, sport and general studies are on the decline.

But one’s degree alone is not enough to cut it at job application stage now.  Whilst it’s always been handy to prove yourself as an all-rounder, students today are having to take this part of their ‘self marketing’ task a lot more seriously.  Choices of extra-curricular activity at uni and even at school must surely be reflecting this pressure.  Clues that point to this trend include the recent rise in applications for voluntary work and internships.

It’s not just course and activity choices that are changing, location is also a big issue.  As money is tight and fees are high, many more are choosing to stick to their local uni and stay at home with mum and dad to avoid accommodation costs.

Unsurprisingly, career choices are also changing in response to the economic climate.  Teaching has become the most popular career option for the first time, as have public sector, voluntary sector, engineering and IT jobs, as graduates seek safer options.  It is hardly a shock that at the same time, finance and property jobs have plummeted in popularity.

However, the dire state of the job market is forcing others in the opposite direction.  Why spend time, effort and money on a university degree when it’s unlikely to get you anywhere?  With confidence at an all time low, more school leavers are going traveling until things picks up.  For graduates, ‘semi-gration’ is an alternative option that involves emigrating to wait out the recession and earn more abroad.  A quarter more students are aiming to enter post-graduate education, presumably with a similar intention of riding out the storm.

So it seems today’s young people are having to become more serious and career focused at an earlier are, simply as a matter of survival.  But it is not only school leavers who are growing up faster.  There are clues that younger teens are also adopting the techniques of self marketing.  The way in which young people engage with and make use of social networking seems to go beyond chatting with their friends and having fun.  We all know that teens use friend counts, photos and wall posts to project a certain image of themselves online, but it is the way in which they network that points to an even more self-promoting agenda.  As usage of social networking evolves, the building of thousands of friends is no longer a simple exercise in proving popularity, but a more calculated mission.  Friends are selected carefully with the key priority of: ‘What can this person do for me?’ For instance, can my image benefit from association with this person or can they provide me with a more tangible reward such as gaining access to a guest list or a discount at a shop?  So prepare yourselves for a new generation of ultra-networkers who enter the job market with the natural business skills needed to get ahead.