Opinion: Our parents’ flawed obsession with ‘respectable’ professions

by Melinda Ozongwu

 When we sit and complain about the quality, passion and work ethic of our professionals, we need to look at what got them there in the first place. It’s a domino effect of society’s pressures, traditional expectations and bad choices.

It goes without saying that most African parents are fairly traditional. Though the definition of traditional is a broad one, when it comes to inherited beliefs, cultures and institutions, most Africans would agree that parental teachings and expectations are usually heavily influenced by tradition. Traditions which, even in modern times, still include outdated markers of success and stuck-in-stone views. What does your son do? Is he a Doctor? A lawyer? An accountant? You know the drill. Of course this is not unique to Africa. Worldwide, “respectable” professions are highly encouraged by parents for their children, but in Africa there is still a very archaic scale of achievement that is being used to measure success. You don’t have to be a good doctor, you don’t have to be a practicing lawyer, you don’t have to graduate with good grades; just get the degree and the title so I can tell my friends and they can tell their friends, and you will be someone.

But there is a massive gap I am witnessing at the moment between African parents and their children, and it all comes down to access.  The internet, television, tourism and even music have all brought more awareness to what is going on in the rest of the world. Africa isn’t backwards, we have just been moving to our own beat, one that didn’t include some of the variety, freedoms and options that exist in more developed countries. We weren’t thinking outside the box – we were very contained in our experiences, our studies and our careers – but things are changing. Younger generation Africans are pursuing careers in Africa in areas their parents are completely unfamiliar with – fashion, psychology, fine arts, communication, interior design, and other unorthodox routes, well unorthodox for Africans, at any rate. I see many parent/child struggles because of this; parents are hesitant to invest in an education that may not pay off, not willing to offer financial assistance as their child hustles to launch a music career, because it’s not what they are used to, and it’s not what society is used to. So in the process, people settle and opt for the choice that will make their parents happy – the token “right choice” – and become an accountant, lawyer or doctor.

This is not to diminish value and demand for those professions; we need more trained professionals, more doctors, architects and accountants, but what we don’t need and have way too much of is people who have pursued a career, not out of interest, desire and passion or even affinity, but because it was the expected thing to do, because their parents told them to do so. We have many such doctors, ones that don’t care about their patients because they want to start a lucrative business and call it a clinic and drive a Mercedes Benz and marry a pretty girl from a “good” family and be invited to prestigious events. When we sit and complain about the quality, passion and work ethic of our professionals, we need to look at what got them there in the first place. It’s a domino effect of society’s pressures, traditional expectations and bad choices.

Growing up, I used to look at my European and American friends in awe, I felt that they enjoyed a certain freedom and openness with their parents, a platform to disagree, reason and negotiate. It wasn’t what I was used to and even though my parents were far more liberal than some African parents I had come across, doing as you’re told was not a debatable directive. So what happens now? Now that younger generations are more exposed and their choices may appear more experimental and rebellious than their parents are used to? At the moment, they are being met with great resistance, not only by their parents but also by society. The job market in many African cities is still partial to the traditional CV, the familiar one with the expected qualifications. And while I understand the importance of a solid education, I also revere work ethic, drive and experience, far too often overlooked because someone has a master’s degree from some abandoned university with no experience, passion or flexibility.

But things are changing in the work force; I see two very distinct streams, companies that are based on a more traditional mould and ones that are moving closer to an international one. As sectors like media and entertainment grow, new job descriptions are developing, ones that require creativity, genuine interest and passion for the field, good communication skills, and street smarts that aren’t to be found in books, lectures and degrees. This isn’t to say an education isn’t an essential part of the criteria, but it’s not the only thing. Perhaps this type of growth and change gives hopes to the child who wants to make a career out of a love for fashion and has neither felt, nor seen options for their dream to be a tangible goal, especially in Africa.

I’ve spoken to many university students whose backdrop for their dreams takes place in America or England. The result of people feeling like there isn’t a large enough canvas as home to achieve their goals by doing what they truly love. Our schools, teachers and employers need to develop modern ways of thinking, teaching and nurturing our many given talents and interests. But, it starts at home, at our foundation bases – parents need to accept that what they were once familiar with has changed and will continue to change, rapidly. It’s a new world now.



Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.

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