In career development and the world of work, I’m often struck by the emphasis on income as the measure of success. Yet, paradoxically, sharing openly about income is taboo. We usually infer salary from a certain type of job (“He’s a high-paid lawyer”) or drop hints (“I make a comfortable living”) about income.
The hope of many parents is that their children will land high-earning jobs as doctors, engineers, lawyers and, increasingly, IT professionals. We can’t blame parents for wanting their children to be financially secure. But as exposed by the 2008 Great Recession and the resulting high unemployment rate, even high-income jobs can be lost when forces beyond our control are at play.
Growing up, my father worked hard to support his family. He was from a working-class background, only completing the eighth grade, then went on to trade school to learn to be a pressman (as in letterpress printing, something you can only now find in your local museum or artisan shop, where the work is viewed as a lost art). My mother was not typical of her time. Though she managed the household and my sister and me, she was also my dad’s partner in his work, handling the financial end of the business and taking on a range of part-time jobs. She sold holiday cards and wedding invitations, typed assignments, and drove a school bus. Today, she would be a quintessential “gig” worker.
My parents wanted us to have careers that would support us financially and always be in demand. My sister became a successful hairstylist. I went to law school and started a practice. I can’t say though that I made a “killing” practicing law — I suppose I gave too many breaks to folks I felt were in need.
Looking back on working for over 30 years, I’ve come to realize that making the primary object of a career generating a substantial income was not the best fit for me. And I suspect I may not be alone. Of course, making money is important, but “making good” as a career goal can be important and bring significant meaning to one’s life, sometimes more so than income.
There are many pathways to career fulfillment. A few occupations that are designed for those looking for meaning and contributing to the social good come to mind: teachers, police officers, firefighters and even the military. As a society, we are gradually coming to recognize that careers aimed at serving higher purposes must be recognized through appropriate remuneration. But teachers are still underpaid, and the level of service pay to enlisted men and women is often criticized as too low.
Authors Emily Esfahani Smith in The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters and Daniel Pink in Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us note the growing recognition that meaning and purpose are critical in careers today. Books like Compassionate Careers: Making a Living by Making a Difference by Jeffrey Pryor and Alexandra Mitchell and job search sites like Idealist.org provide alternative pathways for those who want to make a difference in the world.
Those who study millennials and now Gen Zers are finding that they desire to make an impact on society and create change whether it is by improving social conditions, saving the environment or seeking equality between genders, races and people of different sexual orientations. We should challenge ourselves (particularly as parents) to get young people to seek careers that not only support themselves financially but are meaningful and advance social and global change. I have a bias of course: I’d like to know that we will have a future generation of teachers and police educating our youth and keeping us safe, who can make a good living and find meaning in their work.