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Generational Mythology: Barriers to Career Exploration

by Tom Fairbairn


In the presentations that I deliver to university students, I still get a kick out of hearing that sharp, communal intake of breath and the inevitable chuckles when I confess that I don’t think I’ve ever actually made a career decision.


That was one of the foundational myths of my generation. You weren’t supposed to sit down and work out a plan in any systematic way. In fact, the word career was seldom used unless you were talking about doctors, lawyers, or engineers. The rest of us were not supposed be thinking about careers; we were supposed to be concerning ourselves with finding a job.


There were other myths, too, more insidiously dangerous ones, which had leaked down from my parents’ generation and permeated my own. I know of at least two of these which still have a strong influence on the current generation.


These generational myths are often the first barriers to students seeing the value of career exploration. They are also prime motivators of my own intense passion about talking to young people about life planning. “I wish to God,” I tell my audiences, “that someone had sat me down and had a talk with me, asked me to reflect on what I wanted to do with my life.” I know for certain that the serendipitous, zigzag path my career has taken would have been a lot smoother and more meaningful had I learned that you can think about aligning your academic, your career, and your life paths in the same way you can think about anything else, using logic and reason to examine and make appropriate choices.


Since the beginnings of the Second World War, when it became necessary to sort the cooks from the killers – “Fitting the man to the job” was a priority for the military (CFC, 2002, p 42) – much work has been done in the field of career counseling and literally thousands of doctorates have been earned testing and retesting the interest instruments (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, MBTI®; Strong Interest Inventory, SII) developed to help persons examine their career preferences.


Today, there is a plethora of career counseling approaches being used. Curiously, whether it is from a trait-type perspective or one of storytelling, seldom are the generational myths brought into the discussion. Of the three alluded to above, two, as I said, still have a powerful grip on young people.


The Planning Myth

The belief that life is mysterious and planning is foolish because you can’t really count on anything has been with us forever. “It can all come crashing down on us at any moment,” I remember my father warning us at the dinner table. He had gone through the Great Depression (1929 to early 1940s). Those dust bowl days had faded by the time I was going out into the world of work and is all but forgotten by this current generation.


Even the generational theorists – Michael Adams, Sex in the Snow; David Foot, Boom, Bust and Echo; David Cork, The Pig and the Python – spend little time on this theme as a determinant of what defines a generation. But beware! That is the magic of myths: they resurface every generation or so. That is why career counsellors need to take generational mythology into account.


The Networking Myth

Networking to some, as it was to me for many, many years, is still something disagreeable, unworthy, despicable. It still means sucking up, kissing butt, selling out. This was one of the most difficult generational myths for me and my contemporaries to overcome. And students still confess to me that they, too, have to fight off this pervasive attitude. I suspect it is coming to them, not so much from parents and uncles and aunts, but, more likely, from their older instructors.


It took me years to realize how much damage this particular generational myth has caused. And every day I get to deal with it with a person from today’s generation, I thank my lucky stars that I have a perspective on this. “How,” I will ask myself, acting out the script I have written around this, “could it possibly be wrong, or a bad thing to want to associate with, cultivate relationships with, form groups and associations with other people who have similar interests, goals, ambitions?”


And I have first-year students promise me they will network with at least one faculty member per semester so that by the time they graduate, they will have established relationships with eight people with expertise and connections in the very sector in which they wish to work.


The Success Myth


There is another generational myth which permeates current career exploration culture. This one says that success, any kind of success, particularly financial success throws a very dark shadow indeed on the person achieving such. For me, I believe this, again, relates to my parents’ experience during that dark decade of depression. For this generation it has these (for there will always be those who see success as a sign of failed character), as well as other sources: Trump’s trail of bankruptcy, Clinton’s Whitehouse escapades, Conrad Black’s fraudulent life.


Though this myth is prevalent in all disciplines, it is particularly so in the culture I am currently working in: a studio-based art and design university. Many students have described conversation wherein their peers and colleagues have denigrated and dismissed any impulse toward career aspirations. And there are those who have nicknamed me “the Dream Stealer.” “Go talk to Tom,” they say. “First thing you know you’ll have a survival job, get a credit card . . . forget all about your art.”


Perhaps it is a defense mechanism. If I believe success is a bad thing, then I don’t have to feel too bad if I’m not successful. Perhaps that is why it is so easy for us to be drawn in by this particular generational myth.


But that is, in fact, what these are: myths. And there are more of them. Many more than we have time or space to go into here. But all of them are simply false! Planning is not foolishness, networking is not bad and success does not mean you are a crook.


I urge each and every young person to overcome these barriers to career exploration. And I urge you to follow our example here at Ontario College of Art & Design: meet with your career counsellor early in your first year and begin a four-year conversation to help you fashion that professional persona you will need not far in the future. By the time you graduate, you will have been, minimally – the major role in your life will have been – a student for 16, often more, years.


Planning is good. Networking is good. Imagining success is good. And it is not rocket science. Let your career counsellor help!


Reference: The Counselling Foundation of Canada. A Coming of Age: Counselling Canadians for Work in the Twentieth Century, with a foreword by Stephen Lewis. p 42.


Tom Fairbairn, as the Career Services Advisor at Ontario College of Art & Design, has built this service area from the ground up. With a Master’s degree in English Language & Literature, Tom also holds a post-graduate Certificate in Career Development Knowledge. He is a certified practitioner/interpreter of many trait-type instruments, including the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® and the Strong Interest Inventory. ContactPoint readers can view his DVD, Finding Your Dream Job, at


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