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Help Your Adult Children With Career Decisions

The goal is to choose work they love

spinner image Helping Your Adult Child Make Career Decisions
Job-hopping millennials often face too many options because technology constantly creates new jobs.

When our kids were growing up, Labor Day signaled back to school. Now, after high school and college graduation, they are thrust into the real world and — with any luck — Labor Day means employment. But how do they find work that will engage them over the next 50 years or so? The career decisions they make in their 20s often affect their entire lives.

Millennials are job-hoppers. While they sometimes switch for better pay or opportunities, other times they take a step backward because they are unhappy with their career path. A recent study found that many are even willing to take a pay cut for an improved "quality of work life." Another challenge of 21st-century life is that there are almost too many options, with technology constantly creating new jobs.

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As a result, our adult children live in a world where there's no "definable, preordained life path," says Kathleen Gerson, a New York University sociology professor and expert on work.

Gerson believes that parents play a critical role in helping their adult children make career decisions, especially throughout their 20s. She offers some advice as they guide their millennials.

  • The goal is a career they love. "If they find work that can be integrated into their psyches and identities, then they will stick with it throughout their life."
  • Careers don't need to be locked in by age 22. "The 20s can turn out to be a very tumultuous period because it is the time to find their own identity and develop autonomy. Don't put too much pressure on them to do it quickly. What's important is to use the time wisely to explore a range of possibilities."
  • Take time. "Chances are if you commit too soon, before you have a chance to figure out who you are and what will sustain you in the long run, you could end up unhappy. Take time to get the necessary training and education."
  • Don't focus on money. "If you base a career on how much you will earn, it's putting the horse before the cart. Even if you suppress earnings early, in the long run it pays off if you find work you love."

Gerson used this approach with her daughter, Emily, after college. A science major and daughter of two professors, Emily expected to pursue a career in academic research. But first she wanted to take off two years before beginning the long haul to a Ph.D. She got an internship at a cable TV network where she eventually landed a job. When it was time to apply to grad school, she headed to film school instead. Now 33, Emily is a development executive at Pixar Animation Studios in California.

"She discovered that she loved entertainment and didn't want to spend her life in a lab," Gerson says. "The lesson is that she didn't rush to take the path that seemed the most obvious and instead took the time to figure out what she wanted to spend her life doing."

Mary W. Quigley, a journalist and author, has written two books about motherhood and work. A New York University journalism professor, she is the mother of three adult children and blogs at

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