Up until I discovered the Financial Independence/Retire Early (FIRE) movement, I had never really thought much about why we spend so much of our lives focused on career. I had just accepted it as an inevitable part of life.
However, over the last 12 months, I’ve thought a lot about what I really want to do with my life and how I can go about achieving it. In doing so, I’ve come to realise that a life of going to work each day for 40 years is a social construct that has been prescribed for me from birth… But, why? And, how?
Why career is prescribed for us
There’s a vested political and corporate interest
Ever since the inception of modern economic systems, companies and governments have had a vested interest in maintaining a large, productive workforce.
Domestic Gross Product, or GDP as it is mostly known, measures the value of economic activity within a country. Essentially, it is a financial measure of the value of all the finished goods and services produced within a country over a certain period of time. The metrics to measure GDP are of course, quite complex, but a simple way to look at it is that it can be calculated by adding up what all the residents of a country earned or spent over a period of time.
Economists use GDP to measure the health of a country’s economy and to compare countries against each other, by comparing growth, or a lack thereof, of GDP over quarterly and/or annual periods.
Given that GDP is a reflection of the state of a country’s economy, and strong economic performance is one of the primary drivers of government systems, governments have a vested interest in GDP growth. That means, they have a vested interest in each and everyone of us contributing as much as possible to the income or spending metrics used to calculate GDP.
Consequently, societies are structured so that its citizens are cogs in the giant economic machine of a country, and in order for those cogs to keep turning they need to have careers, make lots of money, and also spend lots of money…
How career is prescribed for us
It is drilled into us
From the moment we go to school, we are shaped and groomed for a professional life. Try thinking about the first time a teacher or other adult asked you “what do you want to be when you grow up?”. I bet it was in the first or second year of primary school.
Now, I bet if you answered “happy” or “retired”, you would have been giggled at and asked to go again. Then if you said “a great husband” or “good mum”, you would have been pulled up and told “no no, like what job do you want to have? Do you want to be a Dr or a fireman, or something like that?”. Then if you did follow suit and pick a job, you would have been told “That’s great. Well if you do all your homework and pay attention in class, one day you can be that”.
And, that’s the purpose of conventional education systems. They’re designed to spit out job or career ready youth, ready to be the next generation of cog turning citizens that keep the economy ticking over and conventional Government systems in place.
Mindless sheep and Keeping up with the Jones’
As I’ve spoken about previously, the majority of people are “followers”, who like to fit in. Consequently, they consume and exist in a manner consistent with the majority of people and don’t like to rock the boat for fear of being different.
Given that the concept of career is drilled into us from an early age, it is accepted as ‘the norm’ by most people. As a consequence, the majority of society simply accepts a life of working 5 days a week, for 35-40 years as the only life path available.
Additionally, the Keeping up with Jones’ concept tends to get the better of most of us when it comes to career. I was once this person, and know all too well the financial stress trying to keep up, whether it be consciously or subconsciously, can cause.
People who try to keep up with the Jones’ often get themselves in a substantial amount of debt doing so. Through over investing in housing in wealthy suburbs, buying fancy cars and letting Lifestyle Creep get the better of them, these people usually have a whole lot of fancy stuff… And interest bearing debt to accompany it.
In order to pay for this lifestyle debt, people get trapped in the world of career and have no alternative but to work harder and harder to earn more money. The problem is that this becomes a circular issue and people get trapped in a nasty debt/career cycle; which inhibits their ability to seek any other alternative.
Why have I been thinking about this so much lately?
My best friend and I met at a Law School BBQ on the first day of University on 14 February 2005.
We quickly became friends and stayed friends throughout our studies. We both graduated, and went on to pursue different career paths. I pursued a career path in conservation, with a focus on environmental policy, and he pursued the legal career path and became a lawyer.
You see, he’d wanted to be a lawyer since he was 12 years old and had spent most of his life working towards it. As a result, his career was his world and he worked about twice as many hours as me each week, and sometimes on the weekends too.
All of this work paid off for him and he had fast-tracked his career very quickly; gaining experience in matters that would have taken most others twice as long to achieve.
Recently, however, my best friend was diagnosed with a serious illness. As a result, he has had to put his career on hold immediately to make some extremely drastic lifestyle changes.
For a man who has lived for his career, the medical diagnosis isn’t the only thing he has to deal with. He also has to deal with the fact that everything he has worked for since he was 12 years old, might be taken away from him in an instant.
You see, when you live for your career, it defines and shapes you. It becomes you. Without it, you don’t know who you are, or what you’re about.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. You see, I used to live for my career. For years, I lived and breathed my career. As I’ve spoken about before, I used to be consumed by my career day and night. I used to bring it home with me, and it consumed my thoughts and impacted how present I was in my home life.
It wasn’t until I discovered the FIRE movement, that I started to rethink my priorities. I started to question my ideas of what life is about. I started to question why I do the things I do. And, I realised that I was living in a way that is prescribed by society…
I realised that I had never thought about the possibility of an alternative life outside of the 9-5 grind, because the society I grew up in prescribed it for me and didn’t offer an alternative option.
If you genuinely want a career and feel fulfilled by it… Great, go get it! Career is a hugely important and rewarding part of most peoples lives.
But, if you spend a lot of time wondering if there’s more to life than climbing the corporate ladder or have no idea why you pursued a career in the first place… Perhaps it’s time to start thinking about whether a career is something that you really want, or if it is something that society has prescribed for you.
After all, we are all in charge of our own destinies; we just have to make more of an effort to achieve what we want for ourselves if it falls outside of the script society has written for us.