Talking to your 20 year old about Careers — is it time for the Learn-Earn-Learn career?

I was talking to my 20 year old niece -an Economics grad about “career advice” and “job opportunities” and I surprised myself. Surprised myself with how boring I sounded to myself. And it got me thinking — this is old hat. The world is going to be very different for a 30-year old in 2030.

I thought about how much the world has changed for India in two decades. And how much more so for skilled Indians — Lawyers, Doctors, Engineers (software engineers), MBAs and even artists. There has been economic hyper-growth for skilled Indians who are seeing their incomes double every 3–6 years. And it might jump even more in the next two decades. With it has come so much economic freedom and financial security — yes even for the notoriously doomsday predictors — incomes are far outstripping expenses, and if you net out the asset building mentality (read houses, gold and more houses), most Indians born north of 1980 are / will be very well-off (relative to what they grew up with). In no small measure, due to the fact that for most Indians, beyond a certain point they remain relatively frugal in their spending.

What then of our children? our 15-year olds and our 20-year olds? Do they have to go get hyper-educated and then “build a career” like we had to?

For the large part, building a career=do meaningless work for the first five years of your career, find your sweet spot, earn money, buy a house, get married and then earn some money, hit vice-president or senior consulting physician or and then earn some more? Until you pretty much hit a wall of cholesterol and stress and general irrelevance before you go into hyper-retirement consisting of chess, arthritis and the odd mentee meeting.

I think we can do better than that when we talk to our 20 year olds. And there are a few reasons why they are different from us.

A) Zero Drive to buy homes: One of the biggest drivers for a lot people so far has been the ability to own a living space. Today, there already exist multiple homes in the family, and they just don’t know the ownership scarcity that we grew up used to. They don’t have to have the “home EMI” or even if they do, I doubt they will maximizing square footage. What this really means that notions of “security” are changing. From assets to… ? something.

B) Hey, Look at my Ferrari ..errr.. NOT really: We don’t realize how used to we have gotten to ‘competing’ for respect and how old hat its gotten. These guys have grown up with relative wealth and more importantly, their entire ‘social status’ set has moved online. Its far easier (or tougher?) to carve your niche and gain respect with your own life story than it used to be.

C) Its about Skills: I think peer respect has moved from a paradigm of “what do you own?” to “what can you do?” or “what are you world-class at?”. Being an accountant or an investment banker just isn’t cool enough any more. Coding, Science, Engineering, Psychology, Photography, Design, — so much to choose from — and why choose only one?

Something else is happening in a parallel universe.

Learning has gotten ridiculously accessible and democratic. Average students are getting into good universities — there are enough seats to go around, as long as you know the tricks. The elitism of red-bricked premier education is not as intimidating as it used to be.

From remote learning programs to short duration, high intensity courses from good institutions, learning doesn’t have to be the long decadal grind that it used to be. I believe its a lot easier to super-specialise and I also believe there is more of a market for niche skills than there used to be and lot easier to earn money deploying just skills as opposed to a resume.

So what then?

Career — In a nutshell, I don’t see careers as defined as long accumulation of skills experience and reputation as being as relevant going forward. (Caveat: hard skill guys — Lawyers, Doctors? A scarier thought is what if the caveat doesn’t apply!) I think the new age Gen-Z “worker” won’t really work as an employee who will “invest” years into an organization to earn her equity and respect by climbing the intricate hierarchy we built and nurtured.

It might instead evolve to a cycle of deepening skills in a “Learn- Earn- Learn” cycle with a working life of say 40–45 years being split over 5–7 year bursts of earning in various organizations, roles, ventures interrupted by a few months of deep learning or sabbaticals.

Its sounds blasphemous to say but money and career is not going to drive the next generation employee in countries like ours. Human labour is going to be a lot, lot more valuable than we imagine it today. Among other things, happiness, learning and freedom are going to count for a lot more.

So what are you telling 20 year olds today?