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Money or Love? Advising Your College-Age Kids on How to Choose a Career

People often face a choice between money and love when making career choices. Here’s what to consider when counseling your college-age kids on how to choose a career.

October 21, 2021

Few decisions in life feel as significant as choosing a career path during your college-age years. In the moment, the question of “Which career is right for me?” looms large.

One of the primary challenges young people face when making their early career choices is to pursue either money or love. If your kids are asking how to choose a career, here’s what you should consider before pushing them one way or another.

Money or love: the career dilemma

Many people learn from an early age that there’s a dilemma between money and love in the workplace. The idea is that most jobs are either enjoyable or lucrative — not both.

Choosing to prioritize one over the other can have significant repercussions for the rest of your life. Say your child has a passion for music, theatre and the arts. You could encourage them to embrace it, but what if they don’t have any success?

The odds are stacked against them, after all, and they’re more likely to end up scraping by financially or relying on you for support. Statistically, they’ll be much better off if they switch their focus to something a bit more practical.

But which one is more likely to make them happy? Is it easier to enjoy your life as a wealthier person who dislikes their job or as a person who earns a little less but loves what they do? Let’s take a look at the merits of both paths.

The merits of choosing money

There are many advantages to pushing your child toward a stable, well-paying career. They’re more likely to get a job out of college, move out of the house and become self-sufficient.

How much that promotes long-term happiness is tough to answer. A Pew Research Center study concludes that people don't experience much more satisfaction from earning more once they hit $75,000 a year.

However, that’s far from an uncontested theory. In a recent Wharton study, participants were asked to rate their happiness multiple times a day. 

The researchers found that well-being among the employed Americans between 18 and 65 tended to rise with income proportionally at all levels. 

In other words, the difference in happiness between two people who make $25,000 and $50,000 per year is the same as the difference between two people making $100,000 and $200,000 per year.

The study concluded that this is primarily due to an increased sense of choice and control over life. If your child is the type of person that values their independence highly, consider counseling them toward traditionally lucrative careers.

What careers pay the best?

If you’re going to encourage your child to prioritize earning a living over doing something they’re particularly passionate about, consider recommending the following fields:

  • Healthcare: Psychiatrists, orthodontists, surgeons and many other medical professionals average over $200,000 per year.

  • Information technology: Security analysts and IT managers average roughly six figures per year, and the field is growing faster than many.

  • Engineering: Engineers can reach six figures fresh out of college with nothing but a bachelor’s degree.

These are among the highest paying industries, but they usually require higher education. If your child isn’t going to college, they can still be financially successful. Consider suggesting trades like trucking or construction when they ask what career is right for them.

The merits of choosing love

The benefits of choosing a career you love might seem less tangible than those of high-paying careers, but that doesn’t mean they’re not real. In fact, they’re often more significant than we give them credit for.

Dissatisfaction with work is one of the leading causes of stress in America, and science has shown that chronic stress is terrible for your body and mind. It causes:

  • Anxiety, depression and sleep problems

  • Muscle tension, pain and weight gain

  • Heart disease, heart attacks and strokes

Pursuing your passion is often scary, and it can be even more so to encourage your child to chase theirs — especially if it’s a risky gig. However, there’s some truth to the old saying that if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.

What careers are the most satisfying?

If your child has already expressed passion for a career path, you’re lucky. You probably won’t have to push them toward it so much as get out of their way. On the other hand, many college-age people have no idea what they want to do.

Roughly 75% of college students are undecided on their majors when they start school or change their decision at least once. If your child is having trouble finding something they like, suggesting random fields others enjoy is unlikely to be helpful.

Happiness is a notoriously fickle beast, and everyone’s preferences are unique. They’re not going to have the time to get through a list using trial and error anyway.

Instead, try pointing out the reasons people like their jobs and let them work backward to figure out what might fit the bill for them. People tend to like their jobs most when they:

  • Enjoy the team they work with and the people they serve

  • Have a healthy work-life balance

  • Feel like their job has a positive impact on the world

  • Have autonomy and know their opinions matter

  • Get to do challenging and diverse work

For example, teachers usually love what they do. Roughly 90% of teachers in the U.S report being satisfied with their jobs despite the relatively low pay, and it’s easy to see how they fit the descriptions above.

Entrepreneurs and their families experience higher satisfaction levels than average. They don’t have a steady paycheck by definition, but they usually get to check off some or all of the list above too.

Ultimately, these characteristics can manifest in an infinite number of ways, so advise your children to find a career that suits their unique preferences.

Encourage patience and balance

It may feel like you have to choose between getting paid well and doing what you love, but the reality usually isn’t so black and white. For most people, a career is a journey that spans decades, and a lot can change over the years.

For example, people tend to get better at things the more they do them. When you get better at what you do, two things usually happen:

  • You like it more

  • You get paid more for doing it

So whether your kids start their journey by chasing love or money, counsel them toward patience, and remind them that the balance will come eventually.

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