Getting past “I need a job”


Do you know why most people run around thinking they “need a job”?

It’s not for the money. It’s for the easy answer.

It’s so much easier to answer North America’s favourite opening question when you meet someone new with “oh, I’m the blah blah of blah blah blah at blah blah corporation” than it is to say “well, actually, there’s a portfolio of things I do”.

Somehow, you’re less of a woman, or less of a man, if you can’t slot yourself into a pigeonhole that other people would recognize.

Now, understand, being the third sub assistant to the deputy vice-president in charge of closet space for Inhuman, Incorporated isn’t necessarily the best thing in the world — but it sounds all right.

“I write, I consult, I teach, I volunteer” doesn’t quite roll out thunderously in the same way, does it?

Perhaps this is why companies with three people total working there (the founders) have a Chief Executive Officer, a Vice-President of Technology and a Vice-President of Sales & Marketing? Sure, I know that if you incorporate you need to have someone (on paper) listed as the responsible officers, but in a three-person startup are you a CEO, or just one of the gang, really?

My generation (the baby boomers) grew up with parents at home who (mostly) hadn’t gone to university. Dinner table conversations about the future tended to be of the sort of “when you go and become a doctor/a lawyer” (those being the typical “you’ll go to university” jobs they could think of). Otherwise it was “find a good corporation and work your way up the ladder”.

My father (depression-era) worked his way up through one organization, until, in his mid-50s, he was forcibly early retired. By then he’d gone from an entry-level position with a Grade 10 education to third level management responsible for all operations in the Toronto region.

He was appalled when I told him I’d resigned from IBM. Five years later, he was equally appalled that I’d resigned from one of the country’s top five banks. “How could you leave a good organization like that?”

That I was moving upward in my career went unnoticed. I wasn’t being William Whyte’s “Organization Man”.

What was culture shock in the late 1970s and early 1980s is today’s norm. There is no organizational loyalty shown, and not a whole heck of a lot given in return.

But still we stick to the other half of the equation: title and job.

My wife constantly asks me about what jobs our two children will have. So do my friends, asking about their job prospects.

My daughter has her BA in archaeology and ancient history. The first words out of anyone’s mouth upon learning that is “what kind of job does she get with that?” — not “what’s she planning to do next?” (which would be a far better question).

It seems as though we’re all still stuck in a matrix where labels have to be applied.

(My daughter, by the way, took a year off university after getting her BA to restock her bank account. She did her entire undergraduate program in a foreign country as an international student without taking on one penny of student debt, paying her own way the whole way. She’s applied to three top-flight schools — again overseas — for her master’s program for next year. Once again it’ll be cash on the barrel-head, the smart way, in today’s world, to go to school. No debt means many more options for work afterward, since money is less of an issue.)

I’ve brought both my children up — and told every university student I’ve ever taught, in three different faculties at the masters’ level — that they will spend part of their working life self-employed. That even with a master’s degree there are no guarantees, and a two year professional master’s program may point you at a part of the job market, but it doesn’t guarantee a job, or that you’ll keep one, or that the organization you go to work for will still be there in twenty years’ time.

After all, in England, they closed whole public library systems two years ago. In the United States, cities have laid off every civic employee and just stopped providing services (up to and including turning the street lighting off to save on electricity). It’s not just private corporations that get bought, sold or trashed out of existence.

Yes, money matters. It matters much more when you have debts piled up. There’s the start of the job treadmill.

But never forget, it’s being uncomfortable with knowing how to answer that question of self-worth, “what do you do?”, that lies at the core of wanting a title and a place next to your name.

4 thoughts on “Getting past “I need a job”

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