I used to hate careers’ advice in school. It always seemed to consist of an unenthusiastic former teacher reading from a limited list of off-the-shelf questions and trying to put me in one of his little categories. He was only doing his job, and I really felt for him, but my sympathy always evaporated at the point that he posed the asinine, but seemingly obligatory question: "Do you want to work with people?"
It stumped me. I would be mute for many long seconds while the adviser duly recorded something in his form – presumably a mildly critical entry, in the vein ‘seems to lack drive and a work ethic’. But in those days you couldn’t tell your elders and betters that they were asking a stupid question. So I stayed silent.
What a bizarre way to divide up the working world, I thought – those who work with people and those who don’t. To begin with, surely even those who ‘don’t’ must have some contact with human beings from time to time. But even if we accept the arbitrary division, it hardly narrows things down. I mean, working in a coal mine is ‘working with people’. But so is being trainee masseur at Hugh Hefner’s Playboy mansion.
I found the discussion dispiriting, and these interviews played a minor role in confusing and blunting my early ambitions.
Far more than the hapless careers adviser, however, I blame rock musicians and song-writers for my jaundiced attitude towards work in my early years.
There are dozens of songs about work, all of them satirical or self-pitying; all in the theme of Mark Twain’s famous observation that "If work was so wonderful, the rich would have bagged it years ago."
Work appears frequently in rock music, but only ever as something to be despised, feared or mocked.
"I’ll never pine
For the sad days and the bad days
When we were working from nine to five"
"Meet the new boss
Same as the old boss"
They were imprinted on my brain, as in those of any other individual growing up with rock n roll.
From a musical point of view, I wouldn’t want it any other way of course. Any ditty that celebrated employment and the corporation would undoubtedly be ghastly. But what rocks as music lyrics makes for poor career advice.
Face it, rock stars were creative, highly intelligent people but they bunked off school. Some of them didn’t make the big time straight away, and had to apply for a day job to pay for the Fender guitars and the tour van. Invariably, they ended up in dead-end work. And the experience found its way into the lyrics.
But what did they expect with bad grades, a surly attitude and a nascent drugs habit? Partnership at a trendy architectural practice overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge? A junior ministerial role following the latest reshuffle?
No, they ended up in a casual job in a warehouse or office. This month or two of labour fuelled their entire view of work, and they proceeded to poison a generation against the idea of a career.
The supporting act for the anti-work song writers comes from comedy fiction, where the activity of the workplace is invariably portrayed as dull. The joke rests on the assumption that people cannot possibly find meaning and satisfaction in their lives while providing risibly pointless products.
Reggie Perrin worked at Sunshine Desserts. More recently David Brent was a manager at a paper supplier. In real life, however, you discover that some people in these roles have a better life than many in showbiz. Not something that is obvious to the young, nor a suitable vehicle for creative work.
I have known warehouse managers, conference organisers, even supermarket check-out operators, who love their work. And above all – call it growing up – we watch the prats on the Brit awards and thank our favourite Gods that we are not rock stars. And that we enjoy working with people.