What if you still don’t know what you want to do with your life?

Did Hillary Clinton or Lena Dunham know what they were going to do with their lives when they left school?

Probably not. The Future Leaders Index, released on Sunday, has found that on average, young Australians face a five-year gap between finishing their degree and entering full-time employment.

Five years is longer than most people will spend at university. It isn’t far off the time we spend at high school. The research, which surveyed 5000 young Australians, has illuminated an entire stage of life that a lot of us weren’t prepared for.

So what do you do when you are a fully-grown adult, yet still don’t know what you want to be when you grow up?

In Lena Dunham’s first newsletter (newsletters are the new Instagram) she published an interview with US presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton. Turns out,  if you had asked either of these women what they wanted to do with their lives when they were in their early 20s, you would have gotten this response:


Dunham was busy working at a children’s clothing shop, and Clinton was in Alaska working in a fish processing plant. As you do.

This crisis isn’t unique to Dunham and Clinton. Whoopi Goldberg put make up on dead people; Victoria Beckham played a sperm on roller skates for a BBC sex education show (we don’t…understand), Jon Hamm dressed people in pornos, Jay Z was a drug dealer (eh, no surprises there), and the most concerning example came from our own office, with someone admitting they once worked: In a bank. *shudders* #prayforanne.

Most of us have probably experienced, or are currently experiencing, the phase of doing a bizarre job that hopefully will not become our career. For some of us, the problem is that we are genuinely uncertain about what we want to do with our lives. For others who actually do know what they’d like to be doing, the poor job market means it’s highly unlikely they’re doing it.

Christmas is a particularly pressing time for those of us in this awkward period. No matter how much you try to avoid it, you will receive tough questions over Christmas lunch from aunties/ uncles/ grandparents/ unspecified relatives. They range from: “so what are you doing with yourself at the moment?” “what’s the next step!?”, “where will that lead?” “will that make you much money?” “Are you gonna eat those prawns?” etc. etc.

There are three options for how to respond:

1. Answer ‘yes’ to every question.
2. Mumble incomprehensibly, so they assume you’re either drunk or talking about a career they’ve never heard of.
3. Answer any of the following: PET FOOD TESTER, IMAX SCREEN CLEANER, SNAKE MILKER, ICEBERG MOVER, FORTUNE COOKIE WRITER, HUMAN SCARECROW, GOING ON 2020 MARS MISSION. These are all in capitals because you must yell them (for emphasis).


But in all seriousness, the five-year gap between study and starting a full-time job, which is characterised by a mixture of unemployment, casual work, and unpaid internships, is a distressing and confusing time for young Australians.

The APS stress and wellbeing survey, which was also released over the weekend, supports the idea that being a young person in Australia is particularly difficult. Over the past five years, young Australians have consistently reported lower levels of wellbeing than older Australians and personal finances are the most common source of stress. The unemployed report the lowest levels of wellbeing, and wellbeing levels rise with income.

Perhaps it’s time to rethink the narrative we feed our youth about the trajectory of their lives? Maybe it takes a little longer to discover what we want to be when we grow up? Maybe our careers are better conceived as a series of twists and turns rather than a progressive ladder? Even Hillary Clinton had a period of disillusionment (AND she smelt like fish while she went through it).

So, if you’re currently in the five-year period of uncertainty, take your time and accept that your job as a sperm on roller skates may be short lived and hilarious in retrospect. In the meantime, make sure to tell all your nosey relatives who make you feel guilty about your lack of direction, that you’re very busy establishing yourself as a human scarecrow.

human scarecrow
Just be this guy. Image: iStock.