June 1996 // Volume 34 // Number 3 // Commentary // 3COM2

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Career Education and the Role of Work

The establishment of the National 4-H Workforce Preparation program to address present and future employment competencies required by business prompted the Allen County, Ohio, 4-H program to offer a career education program in cooperation with local schools and businesses to provide middle school-aged youth opportunities to explore the world of work. However, as the program evolved, we began to examine our goals and philosophies and realized that a small developing career club must question some basic assumptions about the world of work. Teens must understand, and 4-H must provide, a greater understanding of work.

Jeff Byars
Extension Agent/4-H Youth Development
Ohio State University Extension, Allen County
Internet address: alle@agvax2.ag.ohio-state.edu

Work is about daily meaning as well as daily bread. For recognition as well as cash; for astonishment rather than torpor; in short for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.... We have a right to ask of work that it include meaning, recognition, astonishment, and life. Studs Turkel

The establishment of the National 4-H Workforce Preparation program to address present and future employment competencies required by business prompted Allen County (Ohio) 4-H to offer a career education program for middle school students in cooperation with local schools and businesses. As the program evolved, we began to examine our goals and philosophies and realized that a small developing career club must question some basic assumptions about the world of work. How does work enhance life? Should work enhance life? What rewards should one expect from a job?

Despite the fact, in general, we live longer, are healthier, more knowledgeable, and have material luxuries well beyond the imagination of our ancestors, many people feel bored and unfulfilled. While in graduate school at DePaul University, the School of Education was experiencing incredible growth from students fleeing the corporate world. Student after student testified to the dehumanizing world of work and the emptiness they felt upon completing a day's work. They chose to leave corporate life and to enter the world of education and child development in search of greater personal satisfaction. In contrast to the corporate world, people involved with Extension, education and other similar professions have their own list of concerns; low pay, overworked, lack of respect, etc.

As people move through life, passing from the hopeful ignorance of youth into sobering adulthood, they inevitably face an increasingly nagging question: Is this all there is? Childhood can be painful, adolescence confusing; most people, expect that in adulthood things will get better. During the early years of adulthood the future still looks promising. But inevitably the mirror' shows the first white hairs and confirms the fact that those few extra pounds are not about to leave; eyesight begins to fail and mysterious pains begin to shoot through the body. Where's all that money I was to have made? Where are all of the good times I was going to have (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990)?

As people age, they begin to address their mortality in various ways; some join health clubs; others get cosmetic surgery; some buy bigger cars and homes; others throw themselves into a hobby; and some fall into alcohol and other illicit substances. While these may help temporarily, eventually people must again face the questions of life and mortality.

Despite the fact that our society is the most technologically advanced ever, and one of the wealthiest, social ills still predominate. In the United States, the frequency of violent crimes--murder, rape, robbery, assault--increased over 300% between 1960-1986. Violent crime rose 54 percent from 1983 until 1994. In the same period the rate of divorce has risen 400 percent from 31 per 1,000 couples in 1950 to 121 per 1,000 couples in 1984. In 1955 the number of clinically diagnosed mental patients numbered 1.7 million. By 1975, that number had risen to 6.4 million.

Do we continue to lead youth down the misinformed path of prosperity and happiness; get a good education, which will help you get a good job; so you can earn a good living; buy a home; have a family; and be happy? Children and youth are bombarded with messages communicating that they can be a success and achieve their wildest dreams. Teachers and parents proclaim that a good education and hard work will allow one to be successful. Television and print media outlets bombard kids with products that will help them: look attractive--use this shampoo; become popular--wear these clothes; live an exciting life--drink this beverage. However, very few kids are informed about the road to happiness.

Do we address the reality of adult discontentment and help youth develop skills and techniques that allow them to enjoy life. Or does 4-H ignore this reality and continue to offer work and career education as the way to a self-fulfilled life?

Think about the best times in your life. Were they those times when you passively enjoyed the material luxuries afforded to by your career? Or, were they times when you were actively involved in a task that provided challenges tat stretched your mental and physical abilities? These challenging experiences may be unpleasant at the time; however, upon reflection these events -- running a marathon, writing an article, creating a work of art, landscaping a garden, -- one begins to appreciate the challenges offered. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has spent the last 25 years investigating what makes one happy. He has concluded that happiness stems from optimal experiences (Csikszentmihalyi, 1988).

Csikszentmihalyi's investigation reveals that optimal experiences challenge and match one's skills to his/her abilities. In addition, one must understand the complexities and subtle nuances of each task. For example, the highly skilled surgeon is so consumed with her surgery that the five hour operation passes by in what seems minutes. Or the artist who is so absorbed with his craft that he forgets about time. Finally, a reader who gets lost in a good book and becomes oblivious to the happenings around them. These are examples of optimal experiences: the activity is so engrossing that there is not enough capacity in the mind to allow one to consider the past, the future, or any external circumstances.

While career exploration and education is essential to help teens prepare for the inevitable world of work, it must involve more than workplace skill development. Career education must inform youth of the challenges of adult life. Reaching adult life does not necessarily guarantee happiness, success, and personal fulfillment. Teens must understand, and 4-H career education programs must provide, a greater understanding of work. Yes, work is important; however work can provide more than a paycheck. And, life consists of more than a career.


Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow; The psychology of optimal experiences. New York: Harper Collins.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1988). Optimal experience: Psychological studies of flow consciousness. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Statistical Abstract of the U.S. 1994 ed. National Data Book. (1993) (p.215) U.S. Dept. of Commerce.

U.S. Dept. of Justices Uniform Crime Reports. (1993) (p.11) October 3, 1993.

U.S. Dept. of Justices Uniform Crime Reports. (1987) (p.41) July 25, 1987.