Do schools set us up for a life of career anxiety?

How good was your careers advice at school? Remember those career surveys based on 20 or so questions? Did they give you the right answer? Is there a right answer? Did anyone tell you that the answer could change every few years, and that that’s ok?

Increasing life-spans and a changing world is likely to increase the need for regular career transitions. It’s already happening. However, the tools at our disposal, from school through to retirement, are woefully inadequate and outdated in terms of helping us find work that makes us happy.

And it’s not just a lack of tools. The expectation that we might have to ‘re-find’ the work that makes us happy, not once, but many times throughout our lives is an expectation that is never really set.

I was dying to see if things had moved on since I was at school. I completed a newfangled highly data-driven career survey for school leavers. I had to pretend I was 16. I answered what felt like a million questions. It then spat an answer. “You should be a scuba diver”. I’ve done scuba diving before and it was ok.

Without help, finding happy and fulfilling work doesn’t come naturally to us. Even in high churn industries, less than 30% of people are actively engaged at work implying that even when they move they don’t find the role they were looking for.

I believe that effective career transition relies on a certain mindset. People will need to pivot, re-train and transition far more than previous generations. Of course it’s important that educators equip us in the best way for our first jobs. But when a need for change comes it’s scary and can turn a life upside down.

Why did no one mention it before? Or even better, help us to expect it, enjoy it and make the most of it.

Why is it more important than ever to be good at changing jobs?

The 3-stage life (education, one career, retirement) has come to an end. Lynda Gratton & Andrew Scott of London Business School show in The One Hundred Year Life show that 50% of people born today will likely live to 103. People will be healthier for longer. The retirement age will increase as the state pensions are reduced and final salary pensions are killed off. Imagine working until 75 or even 80…

Gratton & Scott add that, “Right now people aren’t skilled to make multiple transitions. Making the most of a long multi-stage life means taking transitions in your stride. Being flexible, acquiring new knowledge, exploring new ways of thinking, seeing the world from a different perspective…”

Not only are we going to live longer, we’re going to age later. A new stage of life between 18–30 has been created. This age is group is marrying later and keeping their job options open, jumping jobs every 2 to 3 years. They are naturally becoming more flexible and adaptable.

The world around us, industry advances and technology innovation will force transitions. The relevance of skills will no longer last a whole career. We’ll be lucky to get 10 years out of set of skills before needing to retrain. Even previously thought ‘career for life’ skills such as accounting and law are likely to be transformed by automation. It won’t just be our state of happiness that dictates whether we need to re-evaluate.

So why aren’t we good at it?

Let’s start with school.

We’re given the ‘what’, but not the ‘how’. Get good grades, do a careers survey, find a job and crack on. The careers survey doesn’t encourage us to really think, it just gives us an answer. The impact of this mindset is supported by our research at GroHappy. When faced with career change people want, and expect, an answer from their advisors, mentors and recruiters. They don’t expect it to take hard work.

Without the ‘how’, whenever we realise “oh Lord I need a change”, it can send us into a spin.

We’re not shown how to reflect. Making (sound) life choices requires more than a survey. It requires a relatively deep understanding of ourselves and what makes us happy, what we’re curious about and our relative balance of priorities across life.

Making mistakes is not actively encouraged. Sir Ken Robison’s Ted Talk, ‘do schools kill creativity’ covers this. Kids aren’t as frightened as adults of being wrong and can be creative without fear of making ‘mistakes’. His studies show that schools can “educate children out of creativity capacities” and organisations too often stigmatise mistakes. “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never do anything original”. When it comes to transition, if you’re not prepared to make a mistake, you’ll be less likely to make a risky (and potentially rewarding) transition.

And then after we’ve left school we rely on advice from people around us that had that the same education.

No one knows what’s best for us better than us. How likely is it that an employer will recommend that a talented employee goes to work elsewhere? Will a recruiter really put your happiness ahead of getting commission for a job placement?

Even people that do care about us might be advising using an outdated frame of reference. The 3-stage life worked in it’s time but how sound is advice that comes from mentors, role models and family members that only have this model to refer to?

So what do we need to be good at transition?

Some people are more comfortable with transition than others and have made multiple moves to find work that makes them happy. Here are some of the themes.

An understanding that it’s a journey. Comfortable that the answer today may not be the answer tomorrow and there is no ‘end’ to finding the perfect job.

A realisation that these moments are exciting opportunities to be enjoyed. An opportunity to take a risk, re-train, re-find a spark or just learn a little about ourselves.

An understanding of self. What do you value? What impact do you want to have? What are you most curious about? Where do your strengths lie? What makes you happy?

A mindset for experimentation and making mistakes. Self-reflection is important, but we don’t really know unless we ‘do’ and take a little risk.

A sense of curiosity that encourages life-learning. Adapting in a changing world is a lot easier.

So is there a case for change?

Too many people are unhappy in work and struggle with their first transition, pondering for years, but too fearful to take a ‘risk’.

I believe this is down to having an outdated mindset. We need to set expectations of young people and equip them for a world of exciting and changing careers.

Imagine if we were all equipped to take these transitions in our stride and move more quickly on to work that engages us. We’d all have a lot more fun and solve problems we really care about.

Next up is a view on what those changes could look like…coming soon.