It’s so great to see you so enthusiastic and excited, it’s like the old you, when you ran the cafe and were all over the place campaigning about this and that being an activist. You were lost for a while there.
The advantage of knowing people since you were at primary school together is that they can occasionally stop you in your tracks with a reflection back of a you that’s slipped from view. An innocuous chat suddenly casts light on a feeling, an idea, that had been lurking unarticulated for weeks. As he walked away, and without conscious bidding, a phrase popped in to my head – “I’m so happy I have work again, and not a career.”.
I never meant to have a career. I read somewhere when I was a kid that it was important to have a lot of adventures, do lots of things, so you had good stories to tell round the campfire when you were old. I held to that tightly all the through my 20s and a good deal into my 30s. I have some bloody good stories for that campfire when the time comes. But then I got waylaid. I got a career. It was a good career, I learnt a lot, had a lot of great experiences, and it turned out to be a big part of my life, over 10 years. But a career has constraints. It has a ladder that tantalises with promises of reward. It usually comes in an institutional setting of one kind or another – an organisation, a profession, a particular company – that brings a whole Grand Tour of Europe assortment of baggage. There are codes, and rules, and structures to fit in to. There is a constant looking ahead, imagining the next step, the next move. The mantra of ever upward, the lure of ever more (financial, status, power) reward.
A career can happen across many settings, and work can be a series of moves in just one place; it’s not the context that determines whether a job is “work” or “career”, it’s a mindset that we take on what we do each day at work. It’s a sense of what is important and where we focus. And it’s how our natural orientation does or does not fit with the ways we behave in the workplace. Some people can trip lightly through “a career” largely untouched. Some people are crushed and broken by the experience. The career is something that some people embrace and through which they flourish. Some people (*waves*) crash around never quite falling out, never quite fitting in.
When I was younger, I had jobs. Some great, some awful. Some rewarding, some soul destroying. The best of those had a buzz, and an energy, and a sense of mission and possibility and community, that was beguiling. A job is outward facing – it’s about who you work with, what you do, where it fits into the bigger scheme of things. In a job the reward (if you are lucky) is dignity from work and not from career. A career is (too often, not always of course) inward facing. It’s about who you are, how you are, who you are with, how others see you.
I love having a job. I love doing work that has real value, being part of something valuable. I love having a job in a place that has integrity in its bones. I love having a job in a place that has community but without worrying about where I am in that community, without wondering where I will go in that community. I could have a career approach to this of course. But I love being able to do what I think is best for the work without worrying about what it means for my career. I love being free of all that concern about my future.
My old school pal was right. I am energised again, liberated. I fell off the career ladder and into the kind of work I had lost sight of. Now, it has to be said I am very lucky. For all sorts of reasons I don’t think too far ahead, dream too far ahead. I don’t need to, which is lucky because I can’t. So at least in terms of work I can stay focussed on now, here, this.
But I am also frustrated, because I want this for my kids, for all of us, for it to be a more valued choice. As soon as a kid shows signs of inclination in certain directions a vision of life that is very focussed on “career planning” is dangled in front of them. The rewards sold heavily, the costs massaged out of view. I want the dignity of work and not career to be something we sell to our kids as heavily as we sell the prospect of “a career”. I want my kids to know that they can choose the career path – for that will always be a good option for some, maybe even most. But I want them to know that they can also choose the work path if that suits them better. And they can change from one path to another if they want. I want this for everyone.
The world has changed so much when it comes to employment; the idea of the career is tenuous for many, perhaps most, now. Yet rather than embracing that and thinking about what it really means we invent a new concept – the portfolio career – to avoid engaging with new thinking about how we should employ ourselves. Scotland is engulfed in talk of grand things right now – democracy, justice, equality. Maybe we could add one thing to that list – the dignity of working and not careering?