What makes a fulfilling career? Ask a teenager
Money and security matter, but don’t discount the human need to create
There is a tricky moment, usually in the teenage years, when children sit down with their parents for The Conversation. The youngster might be showing irresistible urges of an unconventional kind.
The parents (“We just want you to be happy”) press on them the advantages of tradition. Mercifully, attitudes are changing, but these showdowns remain the cause of much heartache in conservative households, and some broad-minded ones too.
Educational and career choices really are that fraught. The young often want to do something fun or creative with their lives. Their elders fear for their employability. Of respectable immigrant stock — a world of additional homework, of inch-by-inch self-improvement — I have always sided with the no-nonsense parents. Study something useful. Enter a serious profession (here I own up to my failure). Scribble a novel, by all means, but do it on the side.
And then you grow to see some of those who obeyed each instruction to the letter wading through their careers unsmilingly. The bitterest divide among working people I know is not money, even though their incomes now range from well south of the national average to the tens of millions. It is the extent to which they are able to express themselves in their work.
Those who can are barely conscious of working at all. Those who cannot are apt to lose themselves in the extramural with an avidity that only makes me wonder at what they must be escaping. Beyond a certain level of material comfort — much, much lower than I used to imagine — people start casting restlessly around for opportunities to create.
To put it another way, art forms that have always struck me as monstrously oversupplied, such as fiction and, in Britain, stand-up comedy, now make all the sense in the world. Many of the jobbing practitioners did not start out in these fields at 18 or 21. They are eking out an escapist sideline to their unloved careers. They are not dilettantes. They are more desperate than that.
That their efforts so often flop — the dozen-selling novel, the pound-at-the-door open-mic slot — would seem to corroborate the parental warning against the creative life. But to know a few of these hobbyists is to realise that success, while pluckily striven for, is almost beside the point.
The human need to create is the point. Their lack of viable talent is not entirely lost on them. Their chances of becoming Sunjeev Sahota (who worked in a Leeds insurance firm as he wrote The Year of the Runaways) or Romesh Ranganathan (the cost analyst turned TV comic) are, they know, paltry.
Regardless, they will keep writing or acting or honing jokes until they absolutely have to give it up. And even then, something else, often child-rearing, becomes their new channel of expression. To have no outlet at all is a kind of death.
These are, I realise, improbable candidates for sympathy. They are well into the fourth tier of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. They have sustenance, material trappings (often lots of them), intimate relationships and professional respect. It is just that the transition into the fifth tier — “self-actualisation” — turns out to be a great divider in life. With exceptions, those who make it across will be happier than those who do not. Money can narrow but not close the breach. The young, when charting their way in life, deserve to know.
On balance, I still think the parents have the better of The Conversation. Starting places matter. It is easier to create from a base of secure work than to make the opposite move. The lawyer who quits to paint watercolours is better off than the painter interviewing at Freshfields. And there is nothing innately unrewarding about any profession. Some traders really are in love with the markets. Some engineers really do find themselves in systematic, rule-bound work. The fifth tier is not just a gathering of artists.
But teenagers who want a creative future for themselves are showing more than arrogance and frivolity. With eerie prescience, they intuit something about human nature that can take others several decades, and much midcareer ennui, to understand.
© Financial Times, 2019