Saturday, March 20, 2010

Maybe We've Got Too Few Hats

"What do you want to be when you grow up?"

How many times were you asked that when you were a child? And how many different answers did you give?

I was thinking about this as I read comments to my post on our overworked American nurses...thinking that it's a shame that people who are drawn to a demanding career, one which requires a certain personality, are then burned out with long hours, heavy schedules and demands that they do more with less.

That sent me down a mental sideroad and I wondered: why did we have to pick just one field?

I know the practical answers; there is training to gain expertise, there is experience which is invaluable. These are things which only come from spending time doing something, learning better ways to do it, seeing problems that crop up over and over again and figuring out how to avoid them. It makes sense.

But why just one thing? Why not just pick a theme?

It's our civilization's way: figure out what you want to do, then spend a lifetime getting better at it. Before the industrial age, there were apprentices. They learned blacksmithing or silversmithing, they apprenticed at money houses and trading companies or with healers and surgeons. It took years to get good at their specialty.

We've continued the one career style with college training, internships, young people who "climb the career ladder." And it was okay for a long time; if you were good at your job, you stayed on that ladder, often with the same employer, for your entire career.

Times have changed. I saw my dad hop from job to job and finally get bounced from a major corporation because, despite the fact that he was the best in his field, he was over fifty. He wasn't high enough on the ladder to overcome ageism.

He reinvented himself; an incredibly brave move that I didn't fully appreciate at the time. He and my mother put everything they had into running franchises they bought from one of the corporations he'd once worked for. It was a success and a failure - they made more money than he'd ever made in his career and they loved running their own business, but an economic downturn ended up drowning them and forcing them to sell.

I have always believed that was more because of my dad's personality than a reflection of the wisdom of taking the risk they took or their abilities. Dad could be abrasive, so when times were tough and he needed a little slack, he seldom got it. But his theme was business - understanding what factors were necessary to weight the odds toward success.

They ended up worrying far more than they should have had to at their ages, but they finally worked out a comfortable retirement.

My guy has done a million jobs to make ends meet and probably excelled at all of them, as that's what he does. But his theme is music. It's always been about making room in his life to create music. He knew what he wanted before he graduated high school and he's never wavered. I admire that.

What if we asked ourselves what our theme is, instead of what we want "to be"?

I've been a TV reporter, a teacher, a writer and a radio journalist. I've been a freelance PR consultant, a retail clerk and a massage therapist. I've cleaned horse stalls and organized files. My earnings history, according to the social security records, is pretty sad. But I have had a range of experiences and a chance to learn what I like to do and what I'm good at.

My overall career theme has been communications and my astrological inclinations predicted that. But if you'd asked eighteen year old me what I wanted to "be", I'd have told you "I want to own a local newspaper." I saw a romance in that that I will admit still lingers with me. But I also now know the daily ins and outs of it and am less inclined to want to do it. I have stuck with journalism, but done it in different media.

Fifty two year old me wants to be a writer, though I'm conflicted about that, too.

I'd have been a great nurse, but I'd have burned out in six months. I take everything personally. I'd have been a lousy surgeon. I might have been a lawyer but I suspect I'd have been bored stiff before I passed the exams. I'd love to have been an architect but my math skills are non-existent. I'd have been a great veterinarian but suspect I'd have soon turned my clinic into a shelter. I love to rehab old homes, rescue derelict buildings. I love farms, animals and people's stories.

How was I supposed to choose just one career? How does anyone? And why do we have to?

Thoreau proposed that we turn the current system upside down; let young people wander the world and get a sense of what they want, then let them work until they no longer can. Retirement, he believed, was counterproductive for older people who wanted to stay active and useful, while young people desperately need that time before being pressured into choosing a career that could prove to be a colossal mistake in the long run.

I like that.

So here's my proposal: let's restructure our work lives. After college (which everyone should attend if they're interested in something other than a trade), young people should have ten years to wander. Yes, they should work. They should be doing the low-paying jobs, the jobs that require no commitment. There should be a living minimum wage so they can work around the country, around the world, and figure out what interests them. There should be hostels for them in every city, places where they can live independently for low rent. One year of that time should be spent in service - either domestically or abroad.

At age thirty, time to settle down, start your career. That's when most young people get serious about their lives, anyway. Many will choose their road sooner, settle down, have a family. That's okay. They've had the freedom to choose and the space to make that choice. The rest will join them at age thirty. The system is set up to enforce that - no more hostels. Maybe even age restrictions on minimum wage jobs. Time to enter the skilled labor force as a trainee or with the skills acquired during this hiatus.

Age sixty five? Keep going if you want to. Why do we have to retire? We've had elderly presidents, elderly CEOs. If you choose retirement, there should be health care and a healthy social security benefit. But if you choose to work, there should be options that make that attractive. How about flex time? Four day work weeks?
Sweeten the pot to make older, experienced workers interested in staying and sharing their experience with the new workers. Team them up, create a mentoring program within every company.

I just read that 40 is the new 50 in the business world. In other words, at forty, you're old and the young bucks are driving you out. Stupid stupid stupid.

We're doing it wrong and we're doing it wrong all over the world.

When I get my turn at the presidential lottery (in my world, every citizen must serve in political office for one term, and may volunteer to serve one term in higher offices), that's how I'm going to do it.

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