This post was written by our good friend Nat Eliason. Nat’s blog covers all sorts of topics, ranging from marketing and finance, to fitness and productivity, and everything in between. His post this week talks about the risks of having a “safe” career, and how entrepreneurship may be a better option for some people.
A safe career — what does that even mean? Does a “safe” career still exist in today’s world?
Headlines warning of the end of jobs due to automation and downsizing seem to indicate a drastic change coming to rock the job market. And that change will not be kind to college students, recent graduates, and other young workers.
For those of us in that demographic, this sentiment can be discouraging and annoying.
You’ve been force-fed the “10 Steps to a Stable and Successful Life,” and you’ve followed them.
You’ve complied, followed all the rules, and dutifully obeyed all of society’s directives.
You did the years in school, went to all your classes, passed all your tests, and took on a load of college debt.
Now, after all of that, it seems nearly impossible to get a good-paying job.
Things look gloomy, and it’s understandable that this state of affairs would get you down. But there is hope on the horizon.
Times are Changing
There are solid steps that you can take to proactively prevent unemployment and unhappiness in the future. You have the tools to create a far better life than you would have received following one of the standard life scripts involving some combination of a good degree, a nice house, and a professional job.
The truth is, the “life scripts” fed to us are replete with risks. At least when it came to creating a fulfilling life, these life scripts always had a poor track record of success.
Just look at the stats on adult obesity and job satisfaction to give you an idea of how effective societal blueprints have been. A look at job satisfaction is especially revealing – more than ½ of working people are dissatisfied with their work.
After all of that sweat, time and money, the most likely scenario is poor health and unhappiness. That’s an awful ROI.
Times are changing, however, and with change comes both opportunity and risk. How you grab the opportunity and avoid the risk is what this article is all about.
First, I’m going to discuss how there is and has always been, a risk in pursuing a ‘safe’ career. This is true now more than ever.
Second, I’m going to talk about the ways that you can shore up your skills so that they are useful and applicable no matter the situation.
If you’re tired of reading depressing economy news headlines, this article is the antidote. For full details, check out the podcast.
The Silent Risk of a Safe Career
Professional degrees are considered “ironclad” in today’s work world – or at least people’s idea of what the work world should be like.
Many parents dream of their child getting a high-paying job as a lawyer, accountant, or investor. Once upon a time, this perception was reality: it would have been unimaginable that anyone with a JD or MBA pegged to their name would be unemployed.
But the market has changed and it’s not unusual to see a JD or MBA out of work. These career paths are becoming less and less sure by the year.
As a new grad, Taylor weighed the opportunity cost of his life script. As a History major, Taylor’s life script was going to law school. But at the price tag of $50,000 a year, going to law school to pursue a career he wasn’t sure he would enjoy proved much riskier than taking a year off to try different options.
From there, Taylor traveled some and then launched his journey into entrepreneurship working as a freelance medical interpreter. He finally ended up working in digital marketing.
Now, years later when “safe” jobs are becoming more unstable, Taylor encourages entrepreneurship even more. In fact, he argues it’s safer than conventional careers.
Why Entrepreneurship is More Secure Than a “Safe” Career
The problem with traditional careers is that they are stable and constant in a very volatile environment. While the world is changing around them, these careers remain relatively unchanged, which offers workers little opportunity to enhance their skills and stay ahead of the curve in an ever-evolving job market.
On the other hand, going into entrepreneurship gives you the opportunity to get direct feedback from the market, which is ultimately the source of wealth and income. As time goes on, you can adjust your offering and your skills, and always stay relevant to the market.
Traditional careers are weighed down by what Taylor calls “silent risk,” which slowly and imperceptibly increases over time.
Buffered by job security and a small but predictable yearly raise, those working in traditional careers receive no feedback from the market until it’s too late. By then, technology has moved in to replace your job, or it’s been outsourced for far cheaper. Your network is stale, your skillset is obsolete, and you have a long list of financial responsibilities.
Although the perceived risk for the entrepreneur that left their stable job to start something on their own is higher, the real risk of a safe career accumulates over time until it hits when you are least able to adjust and pivot.
A better move would be to take risks earlier, build skills that will always matter, and branch out from standard life scripts as soon as possible.
How to Land Work No Matter What
The first step is not expecting anyone to tell you exactly what to do. As Taylor said in our interview, “The era of when you can do what is dictated to you by society is coming very quickly to a close.”
From there, here are some tips to guide your plan:
Engage in Heuristic skills instead of Algorithmic skills
Algorithmic skills stay relatively constant over years.
Take something like telemarketing work, which involves reading a script and calling a preset list of numbers. These tasks are relatively simple and repetitive, which places them at a high risk of being replaced by an algorithm and automated away to a machine (i.e. a computer program).
Even some white collar jobs, like sports reporters and paralegals, are being automated.
On the other hand, heuristic work and skills are complex, creative, and cannot be boxed into a standard script. There are a wide variety of skills that would fit this description. Think of something that cannot easily be broken down into discrete steps.
Creative writing, social work, and mathematics are good examples.
These lines of work require skills which are difficult or impossible to automate, so they have a very high chance of staying relevant in the market. Check out this cool NPR page to see how likely your current or future job is to be automated.
A lot of people scoff at the idea of taking a low-paying (or non-paying) internship.
But the truth is that paying internships might feed you into a career path with a dead end anyway. If you are not willing to do work for low pay or for free, it may not be worth investing time into it at all. Why learn a skill you don’t enjoy only for it to become obsolete?
You should spend your time doing work you enjoy that lets you network with like-minded people — even if it means working for free.
There may be a lot of pressure to jump into grad school and become a minted professional, but don’t rush into anything. Take time to try something else. You may find that grad school isn’t necessary for what you want to accomplish.
The opportunity cost of doing any of these is too high to jump into them blindly. Take a year to think things through.
Create a portfolio by doing side projects
As soon as you can, on the side of school or your job, start creating a portfolio of your projects.
These projects will help build up your skills, widen your network and may even bring in some extra income. A few hours spent building a good portfolio can be far more valuable than the hours spent getting good grades at school.
It might even turn into a profitable freelance business before you get your degree or quit your job.
Network, network, network
Your network is your net worth. Make sure you are spending a lot of time expanding your circle of connections to a wide variety of industries.
Use this network to gain supporters and mentors who can guide you through the volatile market ahead. This gives you much more flexibility and options in a world where change is fast-paced and inevitable.
Safe Careers are Out, Entrepreneurship is In
Never has there been a time when you had so much incentive to carve your own path, be a lifelong learner, and take risks.
In the past, working for yourself when there were so many stable jobs with a pension out there would have seemed very silly. But now, the option is making a lot more sense for those willing to seize the opportunity.