Jobs Versus “Career Choices”

The other day my wife and I read an editorial which listed the unpleasant situation facing young people today, which cited the difficulties they faced, one of which was that more than half of the people aged 18-34 worked in a job to pay the bills, not because it was a career choice. Then we looked at each other and laughed.  We weren’t laughing to ridicule anyone, but because the entire idea of “career choices” is so American and so recent a phenomenon… and yet it’s almost a given today that it’s a hardship not to have a “career choice.”  Except for the upper class and upper middle class, which comprise perhaps ten percent of the population, there haven’t been many career choices for most people in the United States for most of its history. Throughout history, young people either followed in their parents’ craft or trade or in that of another crafter who needed a spare pair of hands.  People felt fortunate to be able to make ends meet, and many could not even do that.

For most of us who predate the Baby Boomers, even if we were able to find a job in a field of our choice, the positions open were usually limited and involved more than a few trade-offs, including moving all over the country.  There were usually many qualified applicants for each job, and in many fields this is still true.  There are usually several hundred applicants, if not more, for each opening in my wife’s profession, and in our entire working lives, neither of us ever has had the luxury of making a choice between two jobs, and more than once took jobs that were anything but ideal to “pay the bills.” This was true for most people of our not-quite-that-advanced age.

So… it’s no surprise that we laughed at the idea that “taking a job to pay the bills” was thought to be such a mighty hardship on younger workers. Jobs exist to fill the needs of those who offer them, not to meet the career aspirations of workers.  That’s frankly one reason why I wrote long hours after the day job for years… because it was the only way I could get to where I wanted to be, and I know I’m exceedingly fortunate to have been able to get where I am – and it’s also why I still work long hours… because I never want to be at the whim of an employer again.  But… to even hint that career choices are some sort of right or that today’s young workers are facing an unprecedented change in not having that many “career choices”… that is laughable.

What I find actually amazing is that we as a society have progressed over the past century or so to the point where half the young workers are actually working in a field of their choice. If that is indeed true, then it marks real progress… but it also wouldn’t hurt to remember that such is not the case in all too many countries across the globe… and it’s anything but a “right.”


4 thoughts on “Jobs Versus “Career Choices””

  1. Joe says:

    I think you may be comparing apples and oranges. The people you are talking about are now expected to go to university and take on debt to do it. Not being able to find a job in the field one specialized in means low wages, which makes it hard to pay off the debt. That’s a pretty bad bargain…

    While many apprentices did not have a choice of career, they also were paid something during their apprenticeship. Training was something employers were expected to pay for, not something employees had to invest in. Less turnover meant people kept the same job most of their lives. The only Western nation that still seems to have this system for those below the upper middle class is Germany (which isn’t in a recession).

    The current system is cheaper for employers, at the cost of lower employee security and skill. Nevertheless, I would agree with you that those of us who work on something that interests us right now should appreciate it fully, even if we worked hard to achieve this temporary situation.

  2. Robert The Addled says:

    The way I heard it growing up (I’m 40) was along the lines of find a good job and THEN make a career of it. To me that always meant changing tasking, learning new skills/roles, and adapting to the changing times and needs.

    There is also the key difference between a workplace and a job. Work is where you go to – do your assignments, and go home. A Job is when you have something you need to accomplish and you work what and when you have to to achieve it.

    My first employer was a retail store – I worked my shift and went home. I joined the USN – when workload and deployments allowed – I did my day and went home – but when needed I deployed for days or months at a time – because the job needed to be done. Now I work at a defence contractor – when something comes up I work whatever is needed to accomplish my task – I don’t hang around when workload doesn’t require it – but when there is a job to be done – 70 hours a week is not unheard of.

  3. Jim S says:

    I always learned that there’s a distinction between work to pay the bills and enable you to live and do what you want and the things you do because you like them. If you are lucky, the two will overlap… but there are plenty of people who ride on a trash truck or who wait tables or push a police cruiser or work in a department store or whatever so that they can do what they love in their off hours. And there’s nothing wrong with that… The simple fact is that, no matter how talented or skilled or worthwhile that an activity is — it may not be something that can pay the bills.

  4. I’m fortunate that I fell into a line of work that suits my existing aptitudes for computers and technology. I am more fortunate that I fell into this line of work, in a particular field which is fairly stable: healthcare. It’s not a mega-bucks field, but it’s been my professional home since 1998, and I’m thankful for that. Lacking a college degree, I’ve had to work my way up through various positions until I now, at age 37, work more or less alongside degreed folk; making degree-level money.

    My attitude is that this type of work is fairly stress-free, in that it is not physical laborious or dangerous in the way my secondary career (Army Reserve) can occasionally be. In both cases, civilian job and military job, I’ve never much thought about career choices. Rather, I thought about paying the bills. Or, in the case of the Reserve, paying bills while also doing something patriotic. I’d love to write for a living, and while my writing also makes me money as a budding third career, I don’t see it overtaking or replacing my first and second career incomes any time soon.

    And that’s OK. I am more fortunate than many, and I don’t mind too much if the work I do on the weekdays or on the weekends isn’t exactly ideal, nor does it suit my mood of the moment. Work is work, as we say around my house. And as long as the bills get paid, work is good. I think maybe I’ve absorbed a somewhat old-fashioned sensibility from my father, who held a similar attitude. Though he did encourage me to try to find a career that was more satisfying for me, than his was for him. And he was very successful, even if he didn’t enjoy his work much.

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