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Graduation, Longevity & The New Meaning Of Career

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

By AnneePublished 2 years ago 5 min read

The beat of Pomp and Circumstance is playing across the country this month. From high schools to colleges young people are graduating in commencement ceremonies. Commencement is all about celebrating the end of one chapter and the beginning of another. Life is a series of chapters, and now that our lifespans are increasing, there are more, and different, chapters to be lived. One of those is the idea of career.

From toddlerhood to young adulthood, we are asked — “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Responses range widely. Young children often cite dreams of being a fireman, dancer, ball player, doctor, construction worker, etc. Many of those dreams come true, others morph into more definitive professions shaped by interests, abilities, and opportunities. I thought I wanted to be an immunologist in eighth grade. As you can tell from this writing, paths change.

The problem with the question is the underlying assumption of a singular response. Our societal notion of career is outdated. As lifespans close in on 100 years a new question should be asked — “How many things will you be when you grow up?”

Nearly half of the high schoolers and college students graduating this year are forecasted to live 100 years. That means many of them have 80-plus years ahead of them.

Think of the changes that have occurred over the last 80 years. Technology seemingly changes nearly every year let alone the tech-revolutions we have witnessed over the last eight decades. With technology changes we have seen some professions ebb and end, while others emerge and evolve. Does anyone remember the ‘typing pool?’ When did a ‘social media specialist’ become a thing?

Tech may be the most visible disrupter of professions and careers but it is not alone. Globalization over the last 80 years shipped out jobs once found in paper mills to textile mills and exported out entire ecosystems from cars plants to electronics plants. In the wake of those moves many people were left without the careers they had planned to build a home, a family, and a life around.

Beyond technology and globalization, structural changes within industries has changed the well laid plans of countless professionals. The rise of the paraprofessional, for example, has even disrupted highly revered and well-paid professions. Physicians are now seeing big box stores provide services with nurse practitioners once provided only by general primary care doctors. Likewise, clients are no longer willing to pay the hourly rates charged by attorneys for tasks that lower cost paralegals can perform.

A longer life means all of us, especially our graduating students, must be prepared to be many things over a lifetime. This begins with, but is not limited to parents, institutions, and employers.

Parents must begin teaching their tots and teens that a career is no longer a single profession. Children must be prepared for constant change, some planned, some unplanned. Given the sheer velocity of change in our lives, from tech to geoeconomics, we must educate our children to anticipate, survive, and thrive in a high velocity world. The storied promise of career stability over decades of work, handed down to us by a generation and a time long gone, is no longer true. What are the things you might want to do with your life is a more apt question to ask our children and vital to preparing them for the decades ahead.

Institutions must prepare young people to learn for a lifetime — not just for one profession that may be in high demand today, only to fade tomorrow. No profession, even those in STEM, is immune to change. Even computer programmers are discovering that they are now competing with computers that write code.

The changing meaning of career means that school is never out and that learning is never done. Education institutions from high schools, to trade schools, to colleges must swing open their doors and rethink curricula. Education must become a revolving door at any age to enable people to refresh, or to completely reengineer, individual capabilities and professional competitiveness over a half-century plus of work. Today’s assembly line approach to education might jumpstart a career, but developing evergreen curricula, ageless teaching styles and venues, and partnerships with employers will be necessary to ensure a responsive and resilient workforce.

Employers must rethink how they will adapt to a workforce that will be far more age-diverse and fluid. Consider the following:

1.Internships, new hires, and orientation programs to be redesigned to welcome and leverage the talents of freshly minted 20-somethings and for the new kid, who might actually be a 50-something that has just changed professions.

2.Investments in employer-based training to ensure that workers of all ages can adapt to changes in technology and industry dynamics.

3.Compensation to be based upon what you do, not necessarily the number of years you have worked.

4.Leadership to be shared by younger and older workers alike. A 58-year old, new to a profession, may look to their 28-year old supervisor for mentorship. Similarly, the young supervisor may seek someone with life experience to provide them with insights into how best to manage a multigenerational team.

5.Retirement benefits must adapt to provide new ‘longevity advice’ and innovative services, and products to manage the complexity of a work life comprised of multiple professions, many jobs, several employers, and income dynamics that do not coincide with our current assumptions of age, life stage, and wealth building.

The next 80 years will see even more and faster change than the last eight decades. Change that will disrupt what you think you want to be, what you are today, and what you will be tomorrow.


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