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Saturday, 31 May 2014

The shifting sands of careers

I remember careers advice at school. One of our tasks was to fill in a form indicating our likes, interests and skills. This form was then processed by one of the early computers (hey, this was back in the '80s). We were then, some weeks later, presented with a set of suggestions for potential careers. I distinctly remember two of the suggestions given to me: transport planner and astronaut.

A transport-planner would probably have had me working for British Rail at the time, so that was a good escape. Quite how I was supposed become an astronaut, living in that well-known space-pioneering country England, was not explained to me. Needless to say, the impression these recommendations made on an 18 year old student was not of the positive variety!

The more realistic career suggestions would have been of two forms. Careers at the time were heavily influenced by the concept of gaining entry to “one of the professions”. To become an Accountant, a Banker, and Engineer, etc, was considered a rite of passage for the middle classes and a life-changing achievement for the lower classes. Either way, this was what you were supposed to do. As an early-stage computer hacker I was probably something of an enigma to the careers master, who knew little about either computers or the careers they were going to create. Looking back, my disdain for his advice was probably obvious.

It occurred to me today that the world of careers advice must be dramatically different to in my day.

In my day the purpose of careers advice was to help you find a “job”, where “job” meant working for someone else. I'm not so sure that working for someone else is how I will be advising my daughter in a few years time. Its an option, but only an option.

Today we have tools that empower us to take on creative tasks that only five years ago were restricted to big companies. Whether it be Movie Producer, Musician, Programmer, Designer or Author, both the tools of production and distribution are rapidly becoming democracised.

In an age when cameras that record 4k video (higher quality than any movie you've watched) are available for only £1299 (Panasonic GH4) and the software used by Hollywood for movie editing software (Apple's Final Cut Pro) is only £199, we can all be movie producers. Sites like YouTube and Vimeo ensure we can distribute and even make money from our creative attempts.

Its the same in virtually any creative field; for a couple of thousand pounds its possible to acquire a pretty reasonable hardware and software setup that allows the creation of professional music, apps, artistry or design. And self-publishing through App Stores, online books stores, youtube, soundcloud or any number of alternatives ensure your work can become visible and earn money.

My wife recently registered a company: £15 and 10 minutes online is all it took. She's been inundated with banks asking her to open an account since. Even the tools of business itself are being democratised, it seems.

I don't have any illusions as to the difficulty of making a realistic income from these sources; it's tough. However, I do find it amazing how easy it has become to create and sell content that rivals the highest available quality. This is no amateur hour, for a modest investment you can now get top-notch quality.

When advising a young person on careers today, it seems to me that “entrepreneur” is a very realistic career choice. For young people with no financial commitments and an idea, why would they not take advantage of this? Try whilst you can, I say. If you fail, well, you've probably learnt more and faster than most of us in regular 'careers'. Initiative, business understanding, an ability to learn and recover from failure, a creative drive: these skills are highly valued in most big businesses.

I think we might be the first generation watching young people seriously question the “working for someone else” ethic.

Would I recommend any young person to go it alone? No. But I would recommend anyone who has an idea or interest and is motivated to do something tough, to give it a try. You're only young once, so grab whatever chances come your way.

So how will regular companies deal with this change and attract young people in the future? Responsibility, trust, empowerment, honesty, authenticity: these are the words that all company cultures need to learn. Are they words that describe those cultures today, I wonder? Somehow I doubt that they are in many cases. Sure, the mission statements and executive presentations will say otherwise, but the truth is often somewhat different as Dilbert has so accurately observed.

This implies to me that things will need to change. They will need to change not only because the expectations and requirements of employees are shifting, but because all companies need the skills and ideas that inspired and motivated young people can bring. Can the Dilbert culture of traditional companies survive, I wonder?



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