My parents called me the other day to “have a talk about my future.” They were a little concerned about my newfound “bohemian” lifestyle, which they still didn’t understand was nothing like the musical Rent.
“What is your back up plan?” they asked. “What do you want to do?” I explained to them that I have a job, and that I am doing something. “A job isn’t a career,” they said. “Do careers exist anymore?” I replied.
I’m sure they rolled their eyes at this, but I was serious, “Do they?”
Since that conversation, I’ve been thinking a lot about that particular question. Are traditional career paths less relevant now than they used to be? Does the 21’st century world of rapid technological change mean that our professional lives will be less defined and more fluid than before?
Previous generations mostly followed specific professional paths, either going into law, medicine, accounting, manufacturing, or public service. They joined a company, climbed the corporate ladder, got married, had kids, bought a house, and planned for the earliest possible retirement.
Today, the career landscape is different than it was thirty years ago. Technology and the Internet have opened up the possibility for young people fresh out of college to have immediate and lucrative success. You don’t have to go to graduate school, work your way up through the ranks of a company and become a partner to invent Snapchat, become a YouTube celebrity, start a viral blog, or write an E-book. Moreover our culture rewards and praises people who invent things and we place a very high social value on individuals who achieve success at early ages. Forbes “30 under 30”, The New Yorker’s “20 under 40”, Fortune’s “40 under 40”, and many other lists like it all tout the successes of young entrepreneurs such as Mark Zuckerberg the inventor of Facebook, David Systrom who created Instagram, Jack Dorsey who started Twitter, and many others.
As writer Aaron Sorkin explains in his movie The Social Network, today, young, driven college graduates don’t ‘find jobs’ they ‘invent them’.
Clearly some part of the shift from ‘finding a job’ to ‘inventing a job’ is due to the fact that technology has changed the overall job market. Large companies like Kodak, which once employed over 100,000 workers, have been replaced by smaller ones like Snap Chat, which barely employs 30.
For many millennials, fluid, rapid, and constant technological change, has made the concept of “career,” defined by Merriam-Webster as “a profession someone does for a long time,” more and more irrelevant. In fact, unless you are pursuing work in law, medicine, or academia, there are very few modern professions you can hold for “a long time”. And while we will continue working for large companies, many of our ultimate professional successes won’t come from finding a job, but from creating one.
Unfortunately, the uncertainty this breeds has created a career angst amongst many millennials. We think if we don’t achieve success early, we won’t achieve it at all. In reality, Americans are living longer and working longer than ever. And because our working paths aren’t as straightforward as they used to be, we should relish in the fact that we have more time to figure them out, not compulse over the fact that we can’t see the finish line. Remember, our professional lives will be different than our parents. The sooner we can embrace that uncertainty, the better off we’ll be.
And if there is any comfort in history just remember that Nelson Mandela didn’t become President of South Africa until he was 76, Julia Child didn’t go to cooking school until she was 40, Ray Kroc didn’t start working for McDonald’s until he was 52, and after countless rejections author J.K Rowling was 32 when she published the first Harry Potter book.
Okay, so long story short I finished the conversation with my parents by telling them that since 40 is the new 20, at 23 I’m basically just being born.
Maybe I am.