Do you really want to be

Quoth John B, in comments on something else entirely at B&T:

Anyone who a) has career aspirations when they’re 17 and b) they’re not vet, doctor, scientist, writer or pop star, is a disturbing weirdo.


+ ACTOR & sportsperson, on reflection, but that genuinely is about it

I’m not sure, for two reasons. One is that being 17 now really isn’t what it was when me and thee were lads (unless thou art significantly younger than me). Snagging another B&T comment:

Life may have changed I suspect – or at least the balance of ‘acceptable to express hopes for the future’ may have altered amongst 17 yr olds. All this endless droning on about (i) the skills based knowledge economy and wot not; and (ii) the need to up our national game vis a vis the Asiatic surge to 21st Century dominance may have had its effect.

I’m certainly teaching students who have a much better idea of where they’re going than I did at their age. Come to that, my son has a much better idea of where he’s going than I did at his age, and he’s not even in Sixth Form.

More importantly, I’ve got a nasty feeling the disturbing weirdoes always did have the right idea. When I was 16 my career aspirations went something like this (in order of decreasing desirability and increasing realism – i.e. mentally insert “and if that doesn’t work out…” after each one).

  1. Poet, famous for writing poems that everyone thinks are brilliant, paid to write more poetry. Something like Dylan Thomas, only not drunk all the time. Not sure if anyone does that these days, but if they don’t I will.
  2. Rock star, kind of post-Bowie, bit intellectual, bit arty, costumes and dancing and so on. Something like Peter Gabriel. I could definitely do that, I’ve got the voice and I can learn the songs and everything.
  3. University lecturer. That would be OK, I’d be good at that. English or poetry or something. I could definitely do that.
  4. Journalist maybe? Can you get a job in journalism? What would you actually do?

By the time I was 21 and finishing my degree I’d crossed off 1. and 2. Unfortunately I’d also crossed off 3. – I’d got a look at the way graduate students studying English literature seemed to live, and decided it was simpliciter sanguinarius atrox (Joyce): privileged, unreal, pointless. Like the Leyton Buzzards, I didn’t want to end up posh and shirty – I wanted to work and get my hands dirty, or at least work at a proper job with an ordinary employer and a salary and hours of work and everything. Looking back, I’m not at all sure what was behind this impulse, although I think the Buzzards could have given me a clue if I’d listened more closely[1]. In particular, I’m not sure why it didn’t occur to me that lecturers were employees too – and that graduate students, who weren’t even that, actually had things pretty hard. Really, I had it backwards – it’s not a life of privilege undercut by arid scholasticism, it’s a life of penury compensated by doing work you love. Perhaps the real problem was that I was in the process of falling out of love with Eng Lit, and it didn’t occur to me then to look further afield academically (and see [1]).

Anyway, I ended up as a journalist (and in answer to my teenage self, what you do is anything and everything that they ask you to do). After only nine years of writing for a living I managed to work my way into academia, and little more than five years after that I had a proper job. (Criminology, it turns out, is where it’s really at for me. Criminology and sociology. Sociology, criminology and the law. Criminology and socio-legal studies, and that’s my final offer.) Oh, and I’d worked in IT for eleven years before I managed to get into journalism, and I was on the dole for a good six months before I got my first programming job.

In short, I went into university with unrealistic dreams and came out with a goal that was realistic – there were lots of jobs in computing – but almost entirely wrong for me. (It wasn’t all bad. Coding can be fun, database admin is a good job in many ways and data analysis is brilliant.) It took me a good few years to get the boat turned round, and the key move was one I still look back on with mingled pride and horror, as it involved resigning from a perfectly good job with only a couple of months’ work lined up. (Twelve years on, I’m still not earning as much as I was paid at that job, even in cash terms.) It’s worked out, though, pretty much; arguably I should have stuck to one of my dreams all along (#3 would have been a good choice).

I don’t know, though. Settling for a job I didn’t enjoy, on the vague pseudo-radical grounds that most people had jobs they didn’t enjoy (and see [1]), wasn’t a good idea. The problem is that #3 and #4 were dreams, just as much as #1 and #2 – they were careers that were just going to happen to me somehow. I remember thinking that a medical student friend of mine was a bit strange because his dreams seemed to be so specific – from about 20 he knew what branch of medicine he was going to go into, how high he was going to rise (consultant), how much he’d be earning and what car he was going to drive. I realise now that they weren’t dreams, they were plans – and they were going to get him into his ideal career in a lot less than 20 years. (And yes, he is a consultant, and if he doesn’t drive that car it’s because he’s traded up.)

Still, who wants a life that’s been planned out? Me, I’d much rather be happy than right any day.


Don’t want to end up posh and shirty,
I want to work and get my hands dirty.
Middle-class boy brought up like me
Got to do something to earn credibility.
Don’t want my friends all looking at me
As a hoity-toity, airy-fairy,
Arty-farty little twerp!



  1. CharlieMcMenamin
    Posted 15 June 2011 at 22:06 | Permalink | Reply

    Well, yes. But I’m old enough to remember a world where it was completely acceptable as a teenager to express the view that the point of life was to minimise ‘work’ burdens. I put the word in inverted commas as certain kinds of paid employment – for instance, if you had a ‘vocation’ (read: knew what you wanted to do in life, especially if it was learned, creative or humanitarian) – were always exempt from this default attitude, but the nonetheless the general unstated view was that work was to be put off of as long as possible and should always be subservient to ‘life'(not that I knew what that might involve at aged 17). Unsurprisingly, this attitude had no resonance at all with my generation’s parents, who had grown up in and just after WW2.

    My fear now is that young people are more like my parents than they are like the 17 yr old Charlie. For all the fact I winch at the memory of how callow and just dumb I was back then, I didn’t live in economic fear or think I had to automatically ‘buckle down’ to a career. My parents did, and I fear a lot of today’s kids do.

    • bensix
      Posted 18 June 2011 at 12:17 | Permalink | Reply

      Really? I know at least five people who think they’re going to be actors and more would-be novelists than you’d find at a New York cocktail party. (Though the latter, to be fair, has a lot to do with taking a creative writing course…) I’d guess people are more unreasonably aspirational than ever because everything seems so accessible.

      Me, I’d like to write polemics against labour. If only Bob Black hadn’t got there first.

    • skidmarx
      Posted 20 June 2011 at 12:10 | Permalink | Reply

      # Was she told when she was young that pain
      Would lead to pleasure?
      Did she understand it when they said
      That a man must break his back to earn
      His day of leisure?
      Will she still believe it when he’s dead? #

  2. Posted 16 June 2011 at 12:04 | Permalink | Reply

    I really don’t know what I wanted to do when I was 17. I’m not sure I wanted to do anything, really. I guess I thought I’d think about it when I graduated. When I was at university, I thought about going into teaching and then drifted onto a graduate degree because I didn’t really know what I wanted to do and my girlfriend was doing one. Eight years later, here I am, running a bloody degree programme.

  3. Posted 16 June 2011 at 16:04 | Permalink | Reply

    I’m with Charlie here. I was part-trolling (not in a horrible way I hope, but in an request-for-comments kind-of way) based on how weird I find the career-focus of Youth Today, and on whether my take on life at that age was normal among B&T readers. I hate the concept that we’ve instilled in the current generation of kids that they need to be PRODUCTIVE and ECONOMICALLY VALUABLE, rather than earning enough to eat and then the rest is down to where you want to be.

    We don’t need to “compete with Singapore” (as I heard some god-forsaken arsehole comment on the UK education system t’other day). What kind of loony, other than (say) a call-centre owner who wanted a docile workforce and was readily capable of spreading his message to politicians, think-tanks and hacks, would think that’s a thing we should be doing, in terms of “will British kids grow up to be happy”?

    • Posted 23 June 2011 at 23:19 | Permalink | Reply

      Well, I’ve wanted to be a financier of some kind since about age 15 or so. I was obsessed with investment banking for a bit (because, facilely, of the prestige), but thought better of it and have ceased wanting to do it, but yet I find that the moment I stopped wanting to be an investment banker I started looking at other stuff in finance.

      So is it weird and creepy in some way? Maybe. But in many ways it’s not about money or (except for the investment banking phase) prestige or position at all; I liked finance because financiers could much easily change the shape of the economic world than businessmen.

    • Posted 23 June 2011 at 23:23 | Permalink | Reply

      Strike the “change the world” nonsense. I probably thought that being a financier was the kind of somewhat glamorous job that was actually obtainable.

  4. Posted 17 June 2011 at 22:33 | Permalink | Reply

    I was reading Matt Scott in the Guardian earlier today when I suddenly realised – that should have been me doing that. (Nothing at all against him, he does it very well indeed. But it’s exactly what I should have been doing.)

    • Posted 17 June 2011 at 22:55 | Permalink | Reply

      Don’t get me started. In gloomier moods I’m convinced that if only… if only I was good at bullshitting people at parties (or going to parties), if only I wasn’t so bloody idle, if only I concentrated on one thing and stuck to it, if only I lived in bloody sodding London… that could have been me: I could have been a politically tolerable Francis Wheen, a less wanky Geoff Dyer, a less superficial Mark Lawson and/or a less versatile Mat Coward. (One of the nice things about Success… and how to avoid it is that it makes it clear that being Mat Coward is bloody hard work. But then, see above re ‘idle’.) My first published short story appeared in the New Statesman the week after one by Kate Pullinger – where’s *she* now eh? And so on. One of the reasons I like Adam Curtis is that there is no universe in which I could have been him, any more than I could have been Alex Turner or Michael Gambon.

      • Posted 18 June 2011 at 09:57 | Permalink

        I believe that the one time I had a book published, back in 1997, it was published the same day as one by David Conn.

        I went on to become one of the most respected football writers in the country: Conn completely disappeared from sight, though I’m told he now blogs about chess.

  5. chjh
    Posted 21 June 2011 at 21:10 | Permalink | Reply

    “I was on the dole for a good six months before I got my first programming job.” Course, that was back in the days when they *let* you be on the dole for six months. Who’d have thought that one of the things we would be nostalgic for was the fucking DSS?

    • Posted 25 June 2011 at 10:26 | Permalink | Reply

      I’m always nostalgic for the DSS: working there was my first proper job. And I was young then.

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