In the very olden days, a career was a job you were born into. You became a farmer, a fisher, a blacksmith, or whatever your parents had been, and your children would be the same (unless they wandered off to war or to start a new religion). In the more recent olden days, a career was forty years working in the same factory from high school graduation to retirement. But what is a career today? No one expects to do what their parents do, and no one expects to hold down the same job for more than 5 years (unless you’re in the government!).
So what is a career today? And do you even want one?
Some people define their career as working in the same role / industry / field for their entire life. For instance, a person might get a degree in electrical engineering and then spend the next forty years working in electrical engineering types of jobs for various companies, and all the while introducing himself at cocktail parties as “an electrical engineer.” That seems pretty straightforward.
But as many of us know, technology is evolving at a frightening pace today. The skills you learned in college were obsolete by the time you graduated, and the industry you’re in today might not even exist in 5 years (thanks internet, email, iTunes, ebooks, and hovercars!).
What is your plan for the present? To work hard and hope for the best?
What is your plan for the future? To still be doing what you’re doing in forty years?
The idealist in all of us is thinking the same thing: I just want to work my 8 hours a day in a nice, climate-controlled office and slowly work my way up the corporate ladder until I can retire at a ripe old age.
But that’s just not realistic anymore. In fact, we may be entering a period of economic history in which that sort of career is increasingly rare, if not impossible (outside of government work, of course). We may be entering an era of continuous change, of continuous re-education and self-re-invention. The concept of a career itself may be becoming obsolete.
So what should you be doing right now? If you’re a software programmer, maybe you should be writing your own applications in your spare time. If you’re an artist, maybe you should be creating works to sell online, or offering freelance services. If you’re a business analyst or manager, maybe you should be partnering up with old friends to start side businesses, or investments. The point is that it is no longer enough to just spend 8 hours a day in one job. That’s not a career. That’s just a job.
And the scary thing today is how fragile a job can be. A few Americans take out mortgages they cannot afford and everyone in Europe loses their savings, and the economy of Iceland collapses. Some kids in Silicon Valley invent email and suddenly the postal service is doubling the price of stamps just to make ends meet.
Everyday, new technologies are invented that make old technologies, or old industries, completely unnecessary. The invention of the automobile destroyed the horse-driven carriage world, but replaced it with a new industry. But now, telecommuting could one day make personal transport irrelevant. Imagine a world full of people who work from home, order groceries online, take classes online, go shopping online… hmm. It seems that world is nearly here already. In that world, we wouldn’t need cars, or car makers, or garages. We’d only need a few trucks to deliver our food and giant TVs, and maybe a doctor from time to time.
Or what about home-made movies? Digital animating and editing software could one day allow a skilled director to make an entire movie, complete with original music, sound effects, and actor performances without leaving the basement, and then distribute it online for pennies. If Hollywood went out of business, think of all the artists and technicians (and accountants and agents) who would lose their livelihoods, forever.
This isn’t an exaggeration. It’s not techno-hysteria. Consider your own high-tech life. Do you shop online? If so, you don’t need cashiers or bagboys or sales reps. Do you bank online? If so, you don’t need bank tellers or mortgage reps. And once we don’t need brick-and-mortar stores, then we don’t need bricks, mortar, engineers, architects, inspectors, contractors, or anything else needed to build physical things. And this is before we start talking about the world of outsourcing technical work to other countries.
But what about you? High school and college kept you very busy for 8 years. Your master’s program or medical school probably kept you pretty busy as well. But now you’re adrift in the working world and your fate is in the hands of several executives who can afford to retire whenever they want, and managers who probably have enough contacts to jump ship and get a new position whenever they want. Which leaves you, O intrepid young professional, out in the cold, wondering what happened to your career, what happened to working hard and hoping for the best?
Which is why you need to have more irons in the fire, more projects in the evening, on the weekend, on the side. Your day-job is just that, your day-job. It’s not your career. Your career is the sum of all your professional endeavors, and if your only professional endeavor is to spend 8 hours a day at a desk shuffling papers for someone who is ready to retire, then your career is already in trouble.
The good news, however, is that you can start bulding your personal empire right now, through the magic of the internet. If you make anything that can be sold, start making some more: artwork, articles, designs, applications, jewelry, clothing, investments. If you can freelance, do it, in your spare time. And if your day-job doesn’t translate into anything you can do in your spare time, then take a look at your hobbies. What do you like to do? Cook? Garden? Teach? I’ll bet you could find a way to turn your passion into something worth putting on a resume if you tried.
The bottom line here is that life is very long, and it can be very expensive, and you cannot rely on any company, or even any industry, to continue to support you over the next several decades. Your best bet is to invest more time and effort in yourself, and while education seems like a smart investment, your own lines of business could prove far more profitable, and far more reliable, in the long term.
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