At 15 I had a rite of passage almost as embarrassing as sex ed with Mr Powell, the banana, and the squeaky condom. I met a careers adviser. As she asked questions, she peered at me with the air of a social worker, unsure if I was a prospective adoptive parent or pervert. Then she fed a form into a machine, and out spewed its augury. I must become a meteorologist. “Like Michael Fish,” she said. This was reassuring, compared to my idea of a career: racing downhill, on a bike without brakes, dodging obstacles. Unfortunately my forecast was more accurate.
The word ‘career’ was first used of race courses and battlefields. In 1803, a soldier, the Duke of Wellington, gave it the new sense of important work. Since then, its significance has ascended from mud and bloodshed. While jobs are stones on the career path, a career is understood to mean something loftier than one damned thing after another. Precisely what remains uncertain.
Such vagueness makes careers powerful masters. What won’t we do to serve them? The longer your working day, the likelier you’ll believe that your career’s on a fast track – yet your job is equally unlikely to pay overtime. Such irrational behaviour proves that careers are powerful psychological tools. Because our devotion isn’t to employers: we know their loyalty ends with our contract. Jobs aren’t for life, but careers are, if only in our minds. This leap of faith justifies unrequited love for jobs that ask more and pay less. We believe we’re working for ourselves.
Careers are the opium of the middle classes, so it’s no coincidence that their popularity boomed in the 1980s, as job security plummeted. But there are signs our devotion’s waning. Career politicians are considered worse than the plain variety, which is saying something. Still, growing scepticism may be positive. After World War II, philosopher Hannah Arendt warned careerism was the Nazis’ most insidious legacy because it narrowed minds and morals. (If following orders was a fit defence, what couldn’t be justified?) So if we think less about careers than what we do and why, we may enjoy ourselves more. Unless we swallow a new religion, and start hankering after that mythical work-life balance…
As seen in ES magazine