There is No Such Thing as a “Safe” Career

by Frost on January 9, 2011

One of the strongest forces that keeps young, successful people from leaving their careers and degrees is a desire for stability. If you’ve got a steady paycheck, benefits, and the promise of lifelong job security, how can you justify walking away from it all to… Travel? Party? Blog? Maybe you’re tempted occasionally, but good jobs are increasingly scarce relative to the number of qualified (or at least credentialed) applicants. You’d be a fool to walk away.

But what if your life isn’t as stable as you thought it was?

What if the career that you’ve invested 4-8 years and six figures in, could vanish overnight in a puff of smoke?

You don’t think it could happen. But neither does anyone whose life is about to be rocked by massive, discontinuous change. Teachers, professors, guidance counselors and relatives have taught us that certain careers are lucrative, prestigious and risk-free. They’re wrong.

Consider four standard “good” careers: Law, Academia, Public Service and Teaching. Each promises a certain lifestyle and a guaranteed life of safety, security, and relative opulence. Each has, more or less, delivered on those promises for the previous generation of yuppies. I think that each will renege on their promises in the coming years.  Let’s consider them in turn.

Law

The fundamental problem with a career in law is that you aren’t doing anything of value for society. You are rubber-stamping the real work that other people are doing, at best. More likely, you are sucking wealth from society and throwing sand in the gears of our needlessly complex legislative and criminal justice systems. The western world would function much better with about 90% fewer lawyers than it currently supports.

So there’s one shitty thing about being a lawyer: You have to wake up every morning and look at one in the mirror.

Even from a careerist perspective though, law school is a bad idea. If you’re smart enough to get into an A-list school, or make law review at a B-list, or if your Dad is already a partner – well, yeah, you can do all right for yourself. You’d make a comparable hourly salary as a plumber, but forget about that for now. Your job is still going to suck. Contra what you saw on Ally McBeal, the actual life of a young lawyer is nasty, brutish and unmercifully long. Have you ever met a lawyer? They hate themselves, and for good reason.

And those are just the ones that have jobs. The soulless, glaze-eyed, document review monkeys making $20/hr in their 80 hour workweeks are the lucky ones. Most law school graduates – i.e. the ones in the middle of their classes at B-list schools, or worse – struggle mightily to find anyone who will pay them a respectable grown-up salary. Do you have any idea how many 35 year old paralegals with six figures of debt there are out there? Perhaps you think it would never happen to you. You’re an overachiever! Well, so is everyone else in law school. Someone’s got to be below the 70th percentile of those classes.

So to sum up: Lawyers suck, being a lawyer sucks, and unless you’re pretty smart to begin with, you’ve got a long and greasy pole to climb before you can (maybe) be a 45-year old partner, with the body and soul of an 80-year old. And if you truly are smart and hard-working enough to get there, why not use your talents for something real? Further Reading on why law school is a shitty deal: Half Sigma (also here, here, and here), and Penelope Trunk.

Academia

Do you dream of becoming a wise old professor, quirky, elbow-patched, and brilliant? Are you going to get your PhD, publish your way to tenure at 35, and spend the rest of your life leisurely researching the world’s great mysteries? Again, best of luck, but let’s look at the life you’re signing up for.

I flirted briefly with this path, in the form of a short, practical, post-graduate degree that opened up a lot of doors in my career and allowed me to study something I was already very interested in. I had good professors, great classmates, and I turned a profit thanks to some generous scholarships. But while my experience was good, I was definitely an exception.

Most grad students have a much harder road ahead of them. First of all, being a grad student blows. You’re poor, overworked, unwashed, and socially inept. The Simpsons knew it, 30 Rock knows it, and PhD Comics really knows it. Grad students even take a sort of perverse pride in how awful their lives are, and laugh with each other about how funny it is that they’re 30 years old, broke and have no career prospects.

Yup, that’s right. Grad students in most fields have awful job prospects. There are way, way more grad students than there are post-doc opportunities, many more post-docs than assistant professorships, and many more assistant professors than wise, quirky, elbow-patched (i.e., tenured) professors. Each stage is a filter that can leave you 35, poor, and with absolutely no experience other than a failed academic career that you will seriously consider leaving off your resume.

Most of what I’m saying applies less so to math, tech, engineering and hard science degrees. But if you’re an expert at some real, actual useful skill, wouldn’t you rather go out and build something in the world?

But, you ask, what about the glorious pursuit of knowledge? Won’t you be dedicating your life to advancing the state of human knowledge? If you’re asking that, I guess you’ve never actually been inside a Western University: They are cesspools of mediocrity and ideological cant. The contemporary university is quite possibly the worst place in the world to actually think freely and come up with new ideas.  As a career academic, you will frequently have to choose between honesty and your career. And remember, if you aren’t willing to make the “right” choice, there are a thousand others lined up behind you who will.

This is currently much less the case in math, tech, engineering etc. But as our society comes to a greater understanding of the imminent threats posed by climate change, expect the hard sciences to come under increasing pressure to justify the “greenness” of their research.

If you are actually interested in the world, want to learn about it, and want to contribute to human understanding of it, here’s a suggestion: Start a blog. I hear anyone can do it. You can study and write whatever you want, and if you’re interesting, you’ll be read by millions. In comparison, my 100-hour-plus thesis was read by (maybe) five people. Myself included. Further Reading: Penelope Trunk, and Thomas Benton (1, 2, 3).

Public Service

Public Servants seem like they have a pretty sweet deal: Light workloads, good benefits, unparalleled job security, and the daily rush of wielding unearned power over the lives of others, however trivial.

But the human soul cries out for more than just four weeks of vacation and full dental. Read Ferdinand’s account of the small slice of the public service he’s been exposed to. His experience is not unique. Is that the life you want?

Even if you think you can handle the spiritual bankruptcy of a pointless existence, have a look at your country or state’s balance sheet. Is there, perhaps, a bit of red ink? More than a bit? A lot more than a bit? The vast majority of national, regional and municipal governments in the western world are hurling cataclysmically towards bankruptcy. How sure are you that your career as a glorified paper-shuffler will be safe when those trees bear fruit?

Teaching

In an ideal world, teaching would actually be a worthwhile profession that would generously reward masters of the craft, and provide a comfortable, fulfilling existence for those who are merely competent. In our not-so-ideal world, teaching is dominated by corrupt, ambition-choking unions, PC-pablum curricula, and a perverse educational philosophy that devotes 99% of the system’s effort on the bottom 25% of students. Since the brightest 20% of students in any given cohort will eventually produce at least 80% of anything worthwhile, one would think that our schools should focus on them, no? As a teacher, you’ll be spending most of your time at the Sisyphean task of bringing dullards up to levels of basic human competence.

Also, the job market is pretty tight. Teacher’s colleges and M.Ed. programs suffer from the same problem as law schools: More students for them = more money/prestige. The incentive is to admit and graduate as many applicants as possible, regardless of the consequences for would-be teachers.

But what concerns me most about a career in teaching is this: Many, if not most public school teachers today are awful. Teacher’s unions have been very successful in the past few decades at protecting the jobs of their incompetent members. But with the looming mass realization of how pathetic the public school system is, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a mass exodus from schools taught by credentialed morons into home schooling, and alternative schools taught by scabs. When this shift occurs, the dues you paid earning two clown college degrees and supply-teaching into your late 20’s will be worth nothing. Association with the old-school teacher’s unions may even be a mark of ignominy.

***

So what’s left for the enterprising, ambitious yuppie of 2011?

Finance is still a pretty lucrative field to get into. Yes, there is a lot of bullshit within our tanking financial system, but most of the work bankers do is real. Assets must be allocated, M&As must be negotiated, bonds and equities must be issued and valued, etc. The western financial system is well overdue for some sort of hard reset, but asset valuation will always be a useful tool to have in your belt, whatever changes may come.

The tech world  is a nice place to be, if you can hack it. Although I hear Computer Programming sucks.

Not a tech person? The world needs tradesmen. Ladies, there’s always the pole.

But really, fuck me in the ear if I know. That’s the big conclusion, my grand finale. There are no more sure things for our generation. Those before us have drawn down the accumulated capital of western civilization into the red, and we are left with a harder, darker world. No more free lunches. No more gold watches.

My friends and family say I’m nuts when I talk about throwing away the safety and security of my current job so I can travel, write, and start businesses. I think it’s a hell of a lot safer than kicking back, taking my comfortable life for granted, and shutting my eyes to the reality of a world that could go up in flames any minute.

Your job, your degree, your dollar-denominated savings account? They could all be gone tomorrow. Plan accordingly.

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