Friday, May 16, 2014

The Elusive Next Steps for Graduates

As a pastor and educator, I have noticed a trend among young men today.  They seem to endure their years of high school, dutifully grinding out the course work, only to graduate with no sense of direction.

I can't help but compare this generation with mine.  When I graduated in 1980, the paths after high school were clear.  One could go to college, or one could go to work.  I only remember a few of my classmates choosing to work straight out of high school.  Most went on to some kind of college.  But everyone could see the options for the next step.  I don't recall much hand wringing or confusion.

Now I certainly did not have a career chosen when I entered college.  I didn't even have a career chosen when I graduated from college.  But I had a confident sense of a next step.  After high school, I knew I was destined for college.  My parents told me so, long before I began kindergarten.  In some of my earliest memories I am putting nickels into a Hi-C can, saving for this thing called "college."  College was always my next step after high school.

After college, it was a little trickier.  I still did not not know what to do with my life, although I was interested in vocational ministry.  I considered going into banking or insurance, and interviewed with a few companies during my senior year.  Ultimately, I chose to hang around my college town for another year, working as an intern for my local church.  The low-paying internship experience would help me decide on a career path. Of course, the fact that my college girlfriend had another year of school might have slightly influenced my thinking.  I'm glad I stuck around, because we eventually got married.  After that year of ministry, I went on to graduate school.

Here's my point.  At each moment of transition, I saw some clear next steps.  After college, I could get a career-track job, a low-paying internship, or go to graduate school.   At no point did I ever feel completely at a loss.  I never made a definitive career choice until the end of my master's degree program, so I'm not saying that 20-somethings should have it all figured out.  I'm just saying that possible next steps were clear.

For today's students, graduation is an approaching waterfall.  It's coming, it's loud and scary, and it will be wet.  Beyond that, they have no idea what might happen.  Their next steps are about survival, not preparation.  Four-year college is no longer such an obvious choice.  There are more college-type options available today--community college, gap year schools, trade schools.  There are more internships available for 18-year-olds, with ministries and businesses.  Some graduates opt for two-year mission opportunities on other continents.

Next steps are not as clearly defined today, and it seems to hit our young men the hardest.  They feel pressure to choose a career and pursue it aggressively.  They are not ready to make such decisions, and so they seem to float in and out of school, in and out of minimum wage jobs.

Men in the church need to stand up and mentor these young men.  We need to enter their lives and help them seek God's direction for their careers.  We need to encourage them to take risks, and pursue opportunities of service, profit, and education.  We need to share our own struggles and regrets.

If we assume that young men will just figure it out on their own, we are missing a great opportunity to build relationships and shed light on productive next steps.  That would have been a great help to me, even in the day when the next steps were more obvious.

Imagine the spiritual power that will be released when this generation of young men pursues God's direction for their lives, confident that God's energy is flowing through them!