Having Your Life Mapped Out

I want you to think back to when you were 12 years old. If you’re in the UK, you would have been in the early years of secondary school; readers in other countries will know where you would have been (I won’t pretend to know). But think about being 12 years old, and what your ambitions were for when you left school.

This isn’t a test. When you’re 12, there’s no expectation that you will know what you want to do when you’re an adult. But some 12-year-olds will know; they will have had an ambition since the age of X. Others will have gone through 17 different ambitions, and will undoubtedly go through 17 more. A third group might never entirely settle on a path.

Each of these three paths has merit, and each one allows people to become passionate about either one thing or a number of things. People become experts on a specific thing, or hold a variety of odd facts about so many different things.

I was in the second category; I had a lot of ideas about what I wanted to do, and they changed with (now I think about it) predictable regularity. The ambitions I can remember from childhood were;

Journalist (I wanted to follow in my dad’s footsteps until I realised that I wasn’t keen in the ongoing churn necessary for good journalism)

Police Officer (I didn’t want to work shifts or deal with idiots and imbeciles)

Doctor (Too much blood)

Nurse (Ditto)

Firefighter (Shift work really bothered me, and the fitness requirement was far beyond my capacity)

Chef (I’m not a very good cook)

Actor (I can’t act)

Politician (I don’t want to be actively hated by a significant amount of my neighbourhood)

My cousin’s son (fast approaching secondary school) is going into the RAF when he’s older. He has loved aircraft for as long as anyone can remember, and his ambition had never wavered. I doubt he could imagine being anything else, and it wouldn’t surprise anyone to see him achieve his goal as an adult.

My own son has gone through a few different ambitions so far, but nearly all with a creative flair; a writer (although I’m pretty sure that’s because I’m a writer and he wanted to copy me), a dancer, an artist, a dancer … and a shopkeeper. He likes people and is fascinated by all the hard work that goes on in shops. I suspect he’d get bored with the bureaucracy pretty quickly, but he certainly wouldn’t be alone in that.

As I write this in the Autumn of 2020, Covid-19 is still rearing its ugly head, and work is becoming a scarcity for many people (particularly in the north). People in the creativity sector – one of the hardest hit – are being told to retrain into other roles; one memorable advert was a ballet dancer retraining into the cyber sector, whatever that means. It was roundly criticised – it would be funny if it wasn’t do depressing.

I never had one particular career path in mind as a child; I loved writing, but didn’t realise that being a fiction writer was a valid career path for ordinary old me – writing books was only for the experts, I thought, until I realised that everyone who becomes successful has to start off at the bottom (unless you have wealthy parents).

One lesson I’m trying to teach my son is that it’s entirely fine to change career paths. I strongly believe that, if we are going to be spend an ungodly amount of time at work, we should enjoy it. That’s not an unreasonable point of view, would you agree? I have avidly held it throughout my entire career; I accept that being a full-time writer is hard to achieve (although I will always work towards it), and so I have moved between jobs when new opportunities came up or when I was miserable. I left a job after 11 weeks because the atmosphere was toxic and it made me ill with anxiety – I did not fit into the culture. I left another during lock-down earlier this year because home-schooling, home-working, and home-living all combined for a pretty stressful time. Something had to give before I went a bit mad, and work was it; not everyone understood my decision, nor did everyone like it – but you must make the right call at the right time for your own mental health. The fact that something else came up which has helped me heal my relationship with work is wonderful.

I’ve learnt so much from not having a singular ambition for my career – I’ve been a library assistant, a buyer, a case worker for the police, worked in the fostering sector twice, spent ten years in local government, and now work in communications. Have I finished job hopping yet? Possibly not, but I don’t have any intentions to leave where I am any time soon.

The fondation where I work have attracted a lot of “lifers”, but the intensity of some roles can leave people burnt out, and to leave is the only choice whilst they recover – I can certainly respect that.

People are often expected to have their career path mapped out at a young age, and that path is expected to last for their entire life. No – no, no, no, that is not how work should be. Work should be fulfilling and enjoyable. In this current climate, some people are having to compromise just to get something, and that’s entirely understandable. But there is also an undercurrent that some roles and some industries are better than others. When the Chancellor of the Exchequer suggests that people in the creative sector should retrain, instead of looking at why the sector is collapsing in the first place and seeing how it can be sustained, there is a disparity in outlook. After all, did we not rely on the arts during the first lockdown? Perhaps he doesn’t realise that TV, movies, books, dance, theatre, and music are all part of the creative sector, but that would require a certain level of stupidity. Insulting an entire group of people who form such an integral part of our cultural life is rather insulting.

I seem to have gone off at something of a tangent, but perhaps a necessary one. We need choice in our working lives, and my son will face new and emerging careers that I couldn’t even begin to dream of; society evolves, and so does the work needed to sustain it. I work in communications, a title that certainly didn’t exist a hundred years ago. What will be around a hundred years from now, and what will our chidren’s grandchildren grow up wanting to be?

2 comments

  • Phill  

    Forgive typos!

  • Phill  

    Very good, Matthew. You are right in setting that careers are changing. Life is changing, industries are changing, so jobs are changing of necessity.
    As the pace of change intensifies, there will be an increasing number of people who will need to embrace change, personal development and retraining.
    We are a long way from Matthew and Son (yet clearly closer in some respects). Very few people will leave school and work in the same job for the same employer for their entire career.
    Think about printing, which once employed many thousands of people and could have been a job for life. Now it is largely automated, and online news and magazines are supplanting physical media.
    We each need to embrace change and ongoing personal and skills development or be left behind.

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