It’s the biggest lie we tell teenagers.
“Fail now and you can kiss your future goodbye!”
Because of this believing any one screwup can ruin your whole future is a thought which stalks teenagers every move. It’s one of the biggest traps they fall into. A 17-year-old from Queensland told us how this had been plaguing his mind.
“Exams and assignments are constantly causing stress and anxiety in my life. I feel as if I don’t get the results I hope for that my future is ruined,” he said.
The reality is he couldn’t be any further from the truth. Your future might get more difficult. Plans might be delayed. Another course or career might have to be found entirely. A life, however, is never ruined. There’s always a way to find success, even if you fail at school, dropout or go away and live in Brazil for a while before you find whatever it is you want to do.
This is wisdom which comes with age though. It’s not something young people with the weight of the world on their shoulders can be expected to know when they’ve never even ordered a delicious, ice cold legal beer in the pub before. It’s no surprise then that through Year13’s YouthSense research surveying Australian Gen Zs we’ve found that their biggest struggle in life right now is figuring out their future.
Another 17-year-old from Queensland told us how this pressure to figure out your future often comes from home.
“As I am in my senior year of high school there is a very heavy amount of pressure placed onto me regarding where I want to head in the future,” she said.
“My mother is strongly for me going to university as I have the grades to get in, however, I do not know what I would want to study. Which is why, on the other hand, my stepmother is very much against me choosing to go to university. I struggle to deal with this stress and break down a lot.”
An 18-year-old from NSW said schools could also have unrealistic expectations.
“I think what caused the most stress for me at this time is really understanding what I want to do, and having had so much pressure from school to have it all sorted,” she said.
“When in reality for many people that isn’t the case, which is perfectly fine! No one should be expected to know what the future holds for them at the ripe age of 17-18.”
And she’s right. The truth is uncertainty around the future is both its greatest threat and its greatest opportunity. It’s what drives us, or holds us back. And a lot of it can simply come down to the way we look at it.
To not know what you’re doing with your future though is socially unacceptable. To not have a plan when you leave school is the equivalent in many peoples eyes of being a failure. But to not know what you’re doing, to accept that and admit that, and to not rush into something until you’re sure about it, that’s brave. It’s smart.
Because if you do rush into something your whole heart’s not in there’s a good chance you’re going to grow to hate it and drop out. Every year 20% of Australian first-year university students drop out of their degrees. For many it’s because they feel compelled to have it all sorted. So they jump into something so they don’t seem like they don’t have their shit together. Down the line they find they’ve wasted a bunch of money and time when a gap year would’ve helped them a whole lot more.
But even for those students who think they’ve got their future locked down, often they really don’t. In our survey of Gen Zs who’d already finished high school, 29% said they didn’t end up completing what they planned on pursuing when they left high school. Another 21% said they had no plan at all. That leaves just 50% who actually finished school knowing what they wanted to do and who went through with it.
A 19-year-old from NSW said he was one of those who left school without a plan.
“What causes the most amount of stress for me is the struggle to have any future outlook of who I am and who I want to be in a certain number of years,” he said.
“I want to follow my passions but the thing that stresses me most is that I haven’t found that yet. I want to, and I know I will soon, but it is hard to get there.”
He’s not alone in this boat. Truthfully it’s a cruise liner packed to the rafters. But in his mind and many like him it’s easy to feel like a castaway on a rickety life boat alone in the middle of the ocean, mouth parched, desperately squinting to see signs of life on the horizon.
As well the future also just brings with it straight up mystery. Those things parents always take care of – taxes, cooking, bills, money – which were always some distant part of your future suddenly get flung into the present.
An 18-year-old from NSW told us how this realisation was hitting her as she was leaving home to go and study at university.
“I remain terrified at the prospects of transitioning completely into adult life,” she said.
“I feel that despite everything I research into things like taxes, bills, renting and generally supporting myself I still know nothing. Nobody is able to spoon feed you a future, you have to work for it, however a little more discussion in schools regarding how taxes work, how to access government medical schemes, programs for young people and even some basic nutritional advice would be of help.”
If all this wasn’t enough, over these last few years uncertainty around the future seems to be intensifying with the first glimpses of a dystopian cyberpunk future coming into view. The media is flooded with talk of automation, computerisation, robots and AI. Add in climate change, overpopulation and rocketing house prices and there’s definite weight behind young people’s concerns for the future.
An 18-year-old from NSW told us how he was feeling this.
“Everything regarding the future stresses me. Not just personal, but more on a global scale,” he said.
“Problems with religion, society etc. In terms of personal stress, future jobs, the housing market, competition, all the general fears. I deal with it by preparing as best as I can, taking a more relaxed outlook on the world and life itself.”
Fist bump to this guy because he’s taking the right approach. Because while we can’t control the inevitable marching of time, we can control our reaction to it. We can be concerned by the future, or challenged and excited by it. For most people it’s an oscillation between both.
But modern wisdom is still steeped in instilling a sense of fear into young people as a way to light a fire under their ass. Like a red rag to a bull it gets them hunkering down to launch headfirst towards whatever it is they want to achieve. Some thrive under this pressure, other’s crumble. The question has to be asked, is it the right way?
Because even if it takes however many years after high school finishes to work this whole life thing out, in the grand scheme of things it’s nothing. And that’s something none of us should forget. So let’s stop the lie. Let’s stop motivating young people through a fear of imminent failure and instead through the real prospect of success – whenever it may come. Even if you have to head off to Brazil for a while to work it out.
Grab your free copy of our After The ATAR reports for more data and unique insights about Gen Z.