Friday, August 3, 2007

the working life

The useful O'Reilly Radar has a post on Payscale, which seems to me a perfect web 2.0 (augh!) application - they provide actual information in exchange for your personal anonymized data. At least it appears to be anonymized, I'd have to dig deeper to see if it really is.

From there, on to career paths and the peculiarly upper-class-American notion that you can do what you love and get paid for it. This irritates me. The rest of the world knows that if you're lucky enough to have a paying job that doesn't kill you, you're well ahead of the game. Certainly if you love what you do to earn a living, you'll never have to work, but it takes a fortunate alignment of the planets at birth to get into that happy groove. What becomes of the multitudes of unloveable jobs that have to be done, passion or no ? I like the idea that necessary work honestly done can be just as rewarding, though this may itself be a comfortable delusion. I am however certain that if you have to chase after happiness, you'll never catch it. It's more like a unicorn, but that's a different post..

This notion often gets tangled up with the idea that most people in our brave new world will change jobs many times. This is typically presented with a Panglossian chirpiness, by someone who's never had to change jobs: together with a distressing lack of curiosity about the reasons for, and consequences of, those changes. Actual data shows: "the adverse consequences of losing one’s job appear to have increased. In particular, a higher fraction of unemployed workers remain unemployed for very long periods, and the average reduction in earnings once they are reemployed appears to have grown." A typical earnings loss for the college-educated is about 21%. This is not quite so rosy a prospect as following your passion to a lucrative new job. "A dream took me away from here, but a dream can't bring me home again" (Tom Waits I think).

It's also worth noting the conflation of 'jobs' and 'careers' in these airy tales. Per Webster , a career is "a profession for which one trains and which is undertaken as a permanent calling". By definition it's not possible to have multiple careers, since it takes time to train and time to practice any one career. Becoming an engineer for example takes four or five years of study followed by professional certification, after which you have only the first clue about engineering. Another five or ten years of work in the field gets you to competency. Now imagine retraining for a new career, starting another five years of training on no salary. This time around, with a middle-aged mind and energy levels, plus dependents both familial and inanimate (try maintaining a house without regular infusions of money and see what happens). The interest rates for student loans are now higher, and there are fewer scholarships or grants available. Those fabulous stories of multiple-careerists are either about jobs, not careers: or the protagonist is independently wealthy: or their first career gave them wealth enough to pursue their dreams.

By way of concrete example, a friend who was laid off two years ago, is attempting to retrain as a physician's assistant. The coursework alone is $30k, and there are several pre-med courses to be completed before then, since a degree in computer science doesn't cover the life sciences. There are 60 slots per year in the local university program, for which a thousand or more applicants compete. She's working part-time at one of those unloveable jobs to pay for the studies; studying part-time to get the prerequisites; working full-time as a mom. These add up to rather more than a full life. This career change is voluntary, but the decision was made much easier by being unable to find a job in the first career, post-layoff.

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