Dear Dr. Sylvia

Young Adult Should Begin With a Job

March, 2014



Is there a way to guide a 21-year-old on a career path? In school my son was gifted but an underachiever (with high-achieving older sisters). He shows little interest in college or trade school.



Your young adult son needs to join the world of work and learn to support himself. While college isn’t for everyone, it’s much more difficult to find interesting and well-paid work without some post-high school education. Apparently your young man hasn’t identified what he wants to do, and the best way to begin sorting that out is by taking a job. At least knowing what he doesn’t want to do will motivate him to search out more interesting opportunities.

You will have to be insistent about the job search and may even need to give him a solid deadline, after which he will be expected to move out on his own. I don’t mean you can’t help him financially if he’s working; but if he chooses to avoid work, you’ll have to make it clear that you don’t consider that an acceptable choice.

During his job search, there are creative alternatives to charging room and board. You could require his doing maintenance around the house like painting rooms, landscaping projects, or even blacktopping the driveway. At age 21, he’s no longer a child and needs to experience the weight of responsibility that accompanies adulthood.

In this economy, finding work isn’t easy. He may be unhappy with earning the minimum wage; but with no higher education, that’s all he can expect. Some jobs do provide opportunities for training. Since he is a capable young man, if he works hard, he could be selected for advancement opportunities. Or, if he finds himself thoroughly bored in a rotten job, it may be just the motivation he needs to decide to further his education.

Encourage your son to explore schooling options. A four-year liberal arts degree at a university may never be a good fit for him, but there are so many other choices for returning students. Perhaps distance learning through an online program in the evenings? Or attending a technical college part-time and working toward a two-year associate’s degree? However, don’t invest in his going back to school if he isn’t motivated; that will only result in more frustration for you. Since he has a history of school underachievement, I would recommend he either save up for at least part of his tuition or take a loan for his schooling. His financial participation is likely to motivate him to take his classes more seriously, and you won’t bear the financial burden if he chooses to repeat his old patterns.

You could also encourage him to see a counselor to explore possible career directions. There are questionnaires and assessments he can take that may get his wheels turning. Sometimes a little outside encouragement can help point a young adult in the right direction.

Lastly, there is yet another powerful motivator that may nudge a young man toward taking responsibility. This is not something parents can arrange or force; but it’s documented by research, and I have observed it at work in my clinical practice. I’m speaking, of course, about love. When an underachieving young man falls in love with a high achieving young woman who believes in him, he often rises to the level of her expectation. Not always, but frequently enough that it’s worth mentioning.

Follow-up to Mother’s Letter

Dear Dr. Rimm, Thank you so much for your response to our question of how to get our son started on a career path. It's amazing, but your last paragraph has played out in recent months and a love relationship has moved our son on. He has a good job, is being very responsible, and seems to be growing up. It has taken time, but we are hopeful. Both my husband and I appreciate your thoughtful and wise response.


Dr Sylvia RimmDr. Sylvia Rimm is a child psychologist and clinical professor at Case University School of Medicine, author, newspaper and magazine columnist, and radio/TV personality. For free newsletters about taking daughters and sons to work and/or, how to prevent underachievement in college, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope for each newsletter to P.O. Box 32, Watertown, WI, 53094. Read Dr. Rimm’s articles on this topic and submit questions online at All questions are answered.

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