How do you tell young people about lifelong learning, if what they're really looking forward to is the day the learning ends? How do you explain what employers mean by "good social skills", when many teenagers - this is a real answer from a real survey - think that the proof of their social skills lies in the fact that they go to plenty of parties?
Careers education has always been a matter of balancing aspiration and reality. But the contrast between the two has never been stronger, and this is particularly the case with careers resources. Look along the shelf in any popular bookshop; the careers books for adults are almost all aspirational. The message is: you are in charge of your career, you can be and do whatever you want.
Until very recently, careers education for 14-16s was, if not quite so relentlessly positive, still determinedly upbeat. It was all a question of choice. Even the Government said so: "Young people have more choice, and the decisions they make can have a major effect on their own lives." (Better Choices, Employment Department, 1994). You started with the subjects you were good at and enjoyed, and picked a career from there.
The advantage of this was the assumption that work could and should be fulfilling; that individuals were valuable and their choices mattered. The downside was the rude awakening for 16-year-olds when they discovered that "good at" did not mean GCSE grade Ds rather than Gs, and that they were not going to get into medical school after all.
But now there is a new message from a new government: young people must learn to be flexible and entrepreneurial, to take the jobs available or even do extended work experience for free. Perhaps careers education will soon be called "work education", if the very idea of a "career" - in the sense of the person you are rather than the jobs you do - is becoming obsolete.
This new message is having to be delivered by the same careers teachers - and, increasingly, personal and social education teachers or group tutors - who were delivering the old one. So have the resources to help them kept up with the change? Only partially, says David Holding, director of the national careers' information distributor, Future Prospects. "The most exciting materials are coming out of careers companies themselves or out of small publishers," he says. "The traditional publishers in the main have stuck with the top 20 per cent of the ability range."
It is easy to see why. The aspirations of the top 20 per cent are still the same - getting through A-levels, into university (possibly via a year out andor "clearing") and into professional jobs, if not professional jobs for life anymore. But for everyone else the landscape is remarkably different. Whereas most of them would once have left education at 16, the vast majority now stay in education or training. Whereas many would have followed traditional, frequently gender-defined routes into work, often through family links, most now have to cope with new ways of working, a new emphasis on qualification s, and much more pressure to talk themselves into jobs.
These are abstract descriptions of social trends; making them real for young people is harder. In 15+ Pathways to Success, I have tried to do it by adapting a style young people are familiar with - the magazines they read - to cover the new ideas. So there are snippets of "news" about the requirement for road diggers to have a certificate. There are talking heads: employers, including Anita Roddick, saying what they really want from their young employees. There are quizzes about "How flexible are you?" in teen magazine style, instead of the more traditional questions about interests and aptitudes.
There is a touch of true-life realism covering not only unemployment and money troubles, but also ethics and work - with young people's views on environmental controversies and whistle-blowing, for example. And there is a practical "how to" strand running through the book: how to ask questions; how to see past the freebies when choosing a college or training place; how to talk about yourself credibly and persuasively.
In fact, that stress on the practical is common to many of the newest materials produced by careers companies, according to Anthony Barnes, careers education consultant for Careers Enterprise, in
Surrey. As the use of computer databases for career-matching has grown, so the best paper-based materials tend to be both a record of, and an exercise in, new-style careers realism.
"This portfolio approach, where students build up a personal folder of important documents and of work they do in their PSE programme, is empowering young people to manage their own careers," Mr Barnes explains.
"People think that careers education is a Philistine activity - just getting students into jobs. But in fact it is dealing with values. It's making people aware that employers may have selfish interests or that there are costs in turning your back on corporate culture. When SCAA talks about spiritual and culture development, this kind of careers education is right in the thick of it. "
15+ Pathways to Success is published by Redwing Press, #163;9.99. Available from Redwing Press, 36 Owlstone Road, Cambridge CB3 9JH; or from Future Prospects, Newland, Nr Ulverston, Cumbria LA12 7QG