The writer is the author of ‘Uncharted: How to Navigate the Future’
Do you remember being five? I have dim memories, mostly of playing with friends and making mud pies. The last thing on my mind was what I would be when I grew up. But in England, a new £2.6mn initiative is being aimed at children between the ages of five and eight, encouraging them to think about their future jobs. The Department of Education has recognised that young children are aware of the world of work (largely due to their parents and television) but seems to think that delaying career guidance is a problem that needs fixing.
Education always seems to be both the cause of all our woes — and their solution. Schools have to feed children, ensure their physical fitness, keep them safe, monitor and address mental and social health issues, all while trying to teach them how to read, write and count. Now, they have another duty on this ever-expanding list: they have to inspire their pupils to aim higher and think more ambitiously about their job prospects.
The fact that teachers are so overburdened that 44 per cent want to quit within the next five years is bad enough. So is the government’s insistence on considering pupils not as citizens but economic units of production. But more worrying is that the concept of “a career” is still so deeply entrenched.
We’ve watched industries rise and fall over the course of the last 100 years. We know that life expectancy is broadly rising. So, as professors Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott have shown in their book The 100-year Life, most people can expect to have multiple careers, not just one.
The report on which the government’s new initiative is based opens with a worrying metaphor: “Ignoring the process of career development occurring in childhood is similar to a gardener disregarding the quality of the soil in which a garden will be planted.”
But though garden plants grow, they don’t change over their lifetimes. A rosemary bush does not become an oak tree. Yet milkmen do become painters, teachers can lead intelligence organisations, oil executives embrace religion and art historians turn into labour rights negotiators — even economists become nurses. Such adaptability is one of our greatest gifts.
Over the course of a lifetime, individuals don’t just change physically or in their attitude and choices. They also change their values, their ideas of who they are, what they seek from work and their understanding of joy. Any rigid concept of “a career” is antithetical to the fact that humans are always developing, often quite profoundly, right up to the moment that they die.
In my experience, the British have always been hidebound in the way that they think about work. When, after 15 successful years in broadcasting, I wanted to explore what else I might be capable of, I found no employer who could imagine me as other than what I had already been. They couldn’t see the relevance of my skills to a different context. Nor did they understand why I might be eager to learn new ones. They simply couldn’t imagine change, on my part or on their own.
But when I moved to the US, I encountered no such difficulty. I worked in fundraising, then public affairs for a major Boston law firm before moving on to run tech start-ups for a venture capitalist. The cross-fertilisation was good for my employers and revivifying for me. Personal growth and business growth were intertwined — as they should be.
This was nothing like the gig economy but the best kind of work: mutually beneficial, enhancing our shared capacity for change. And the employees I’m proudest of are those who went on to found their own companies — often in entirely different domains.
Instead of “inspiring them about the world of work”, schools in England and elsewhere would do better to teach their pupils about the possibilities that life holds. We don’t know, with any precision, what kinds of skills the workforce of the future will require. Beyond the fact that academic achievement is predictive of more academic achievement, we don’t even know what subjects map on to what capabilities.
To grow in a fast changing, unpredictable environment, we need a population that loves learning, whose curiosity about the world is stimulated not by a fear of failing tests but a life-long passion for invention and discovery.
These days, I am routinely asked by business leaders what they can do to make their people more curious and inventive. But that’s what they were — when they were children. The least we can do is let them stay that way as long as possible.