The Future of Careers

As we move into the future of work, I’m wondering if the word “career” will remain in our vernacular. 

I looked up the definition late last week, and here is what I found: “an occupation undertaken for a significant period of a person’s life.”  

It’s interesting to me that to meet the definition of a career, an occupation must consume a “significant period” of one’s life. Once I let that sink in, I decided that our future opportunities for work may eliminate the very notion of a “career.”  

Any rudimentary research on the future of work will turn up this oft quoted “fact” - by 2030 nearly half of the jobs that people do today will be unrecognizable or non-existent due to advances in automation and AI. That’s just 12 years away! So, for those just entering the working world, it is possible that their current occupation may not be available to them for a “significant period” of their life. 

And, I’m kind of thinking that may be okay. Maybe that will be a good thing.  

When you think about the things that you do for a “significant period” of your life, aside from your career, you realize that only real necessities actually make the list. You sleep, you eat, you brush your teeth, etc., pretty much your entire life.  

But, do we live in the same house? Do we pursue the same hobbies? Listen to the same music or read the same books? And, while we eat all our lives, we aren’t eating the same foods — even our tastes change over time.  

So, if we accept, or maybe even pursue, change in every other aspect of our lives, why have we conditioned ourselves to believe that success in our employability means sticking with the same occupation for a “significant period” of our lives?

Maybe it is because we invest in an education that leads to that career choice? But, then again, much of education is really about broader concepts rather than actual technical skills. For many of us, the technical skills are learned, or perfected, on the job, not in the classroom.

I’ve tried to Google myself to an answer as to why so much of our personal identity is built into our occupation. But, to date, I haven’t found an answer.

I know that we ask children all of the time — “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I’m not even sure why we do that. Sure, it’s cute when a kindergartener tells you they want to be an archeologist. But, aside from being cute, what purpose does it serve? Other than to, perhaps, cement the notion that what you do for a living defines who you are as a person.

Maybe this intermingling of occupation and identity dates all the way back to the days when one’s surname was based upon one’s occupation — Baker, Miller, Smith, etc.

Ultimately, I don’t know the answer. But, I do know that I’m a bit preoccupied with the question.  

When I was still in college, I went on a whitewater rafting trip. I was fascinated with the fact that our guide and his friends were part of an entire subculture that traveled around the country doing odd jobs until it was kayaking season. Our guide baked bread in the months he couldn’t be on the water.  

I remember thinking how maybe that was the way to live — to earn just enough to enjoy your passions in life and commit yourself to a life built around those passions.

But, by the time I had graduated, I had fallen into the trap of pursuing a “career” that correlated with my major. And, when that didn’t work out, well, I felt rather adrift — and ended up back in school, accumulating more debt.  

So, for me, personally, I don’t see any benefit to continuing to reinforce this notion that what we do defines who we are. And, I think that if the future of work means that occupations will naturally change more frequently, that might actually be healthier for us all.

Another fact you can easily find floating around the internet is the low percentage of people who are actually “engaged” at work. Many companies do surveys and then brainstorm how to engage their workforce. Other companies just blame their employees and set even higher quotas.  

But, maybe the answer is simply that we’ve incorrectly conditioned ourselves into thinking that stability is success. So, we stick around in careers for which we have no passion. Or, we toil away to justify our student debt.  

Perhaps it is time to redefine success. Maybe success is as simple as being fully engaged in life. For some, that will be like my rafting guide — earning just enough to pursue their passions outside of their occupation. For others, they will pursue occupations for which they have true passion. And, when passions change or evolve, so too does the occupation.

We seem to seek out variety in nearly everything else we do — where we live and travel, what we eat and watch on Netflix, and what we pursue in our free time. Maybe a bit of variety in our occupations will keep us engaged, not just at work, but in life.

I sense that the younger you are the more likely that this variety in your occupation will be forced upon you — it won’t be something you can choose. As someone who is beyond the midpoint of her working years, I encourage you to celebrate the death of the career. A “career” may have been a well-intentioned idea — pursue an occupation and become a master. But, for many it seems it turned out to be about as exciting as eating pot roast. Every. Single. Sunday.

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