On careers

Only those who decline to scramble up the career ladder are interesting as human beings. Nothing is more boring than a man with a career.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago

There’s an interesting sentence in Robert Heinlein’s classic SF novel The Moon is a Harsh Mistress where he describes the attitudes of the typical (mostly male) inhabitants of his fictional lunar colony: “Average Loonie was interested in beer, betting, women, and work, in that order.” I think it points to a divide in our own society: between those who have (or aspire to) a job, and those who have a career.

Of course I’m leaving out the vanishingly small fraction of people who do something they genuinely love for a living. More power to them, but most of us aren’t in that happy position. I’ve certainly never had paid employment of any kind that I would have kept doing if I hadn’t needed the money. I’m also leaving out those people who are rich enough that they don’t need to work at all. There are probably even fewer of those.

A job is a disposable thing. Jobs come and go. You might be a plumber, say, and a job may consist of installing a shower. When it’s done, it’s done. Unless you happen to be a particularly neurotic plumber, it probably won’t occupy your thoughts beyond what is needed to do it. You might be a participant in the “gig economy” and have multiple jobs, none of which are really part of your sense of who you are. After all, who wants to identify with delivering pizzas?

A career, on the other hand, is a thing to be spoken of with reverence; it is composed of a series of jobs, it’s true, but you’re not supposed to think of it that way. The myth of the career is the personalised version of the great Myth of Progress which we are all supposed to believe in, despite evidence to the contrary. It is aspirational. If you are asked at a job interview where you see yourself in five years’ time, then the job under discussion is not a mere job but a step in a career.

The picture at the head of this post sums that thinking up rather well. What strikes me about it most forcefully is what will happen to the leaping woman if the rock she is aiming for turns out not to be there. She will suddenly become a briefcase-carrying Wile E. Coyote, doomed to plunge into the apparently bottomless chasm. And this is going to happen to a lot of people in the not too distant future, and far from metaphorically either. We already have “software professionals” who are obliged to live in their car because the cost of housing in California is so high that even they can’t afford it.

When I was at school leaving age, there was a bloke who was called in to advise us all about our future careers. As it turns out, I spent most of my working life doing things that hadn’t been invented at the time, so it wasn’t especially helpful. But it’s an odd thing to suppose that an eighteen-year-old is going to be able to say, with any real honesty, “I want to be an accountant/commodities trader/quantity surveyor/optician/whatever.” And if you tried the trick today, you’d be assuming rather optimistically that there will be accountants, commodities traders, quantity surveyors or opticians for the duration of your working life. I’m not at all sure that that’s a good assumption, given the way things are going.

Nobody, I think, would deny that plumbers do useful work. I could say the same for practitioners of any of the classic trades. Most of them will be needed in some form whatever the future holds, and they offer many transferable skills. Carpenters will be needed for as long as there are trees. Commodities traders, maybe not so much.

I think of some of the magnificently pointless job titles cited in David Graeber’s entertaining Bullshit Jobs. There is probably not much actual need for an East Coast Vision Co-ordinator even today, but I would be prepared to bet cash money there’ll be even less in twenty years’ time. What will become of the person who has that job? Will they find they have leapt daringly onto a non-existent rock? And will they be able to cope psychologically with the knowledge that they have no useful skills in the world in which they find themselves? I rather think that someone who delivers pizza today will be far less attached to their “career” and will positively welcome the chance to do something else.

If you have a career, I suggest that you start thinking about it as if it were just a job. For one thing you will be saner and better-adjusted. But you will also be far better-placed to confront the future, even just from that change in your thinking. The world is a richer, hairier and more interesting place than we sometimes let ourselves imagine, and we ourselves have more potential than we may think. After all, Albert Einstein could have had a perfectly good career in the Swiss patent office.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

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