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New directions

The world of careers advice has not kept up with the pace of change in society, says Hilary Moriarty

Posted by Hannah Oakman | July 06, 2016 | People, policy, politics

Who, in the name of all that’s wonderful, would choose in today’s world to be a Careers Advisor? Can you imagine a more difficult, demanding and, possibly, thankless task than that of advising anyone on how they might make a living? Even that expression, ‘make a living’, seems antique. What young person, day dreaming their future as they sit in class today, is thinking about making a living? A fortune, yes of course - preferably before the age of 25, by hook or by crook or by sheer good looks.

Ah, good looks. Time was when if you had them that was very nice for you, but you could hardly expect to make a career out of looks alone, oh no, no, no. Come to think of it, even then, I wondered why not? Were not good looks as much a gift upon which you could quite reasonably capitalise, as others capitalised on general intelligence which, in the sometimes complete absence of cash or privilege, took you to grammar school then university, able to live quite happily on a grant with added travel benefits? But we didn’t trust looks in the olden days – my mother condemned the best looking girl in my class with the dismissive ‘harrumph’: “Looks don’t last – and she’s no better than she should be!” Signifying that the rest of us, swotting on a Saturday night, were superior beings to the girl with the perfect teeth, the long blonde hair and the dashing boyfriend with a pink sports car. I do remember not being convinced.

Today, we realise the practical wisdom of, ‘If you’ve got it, flaunt it’, largely because we have expanded our notions of what is good and valuable and worthwhile, and because it works. I have never forgotten the impeccable logic of a pretty girl of 14 whose parents wanted her to join the school where I was Head, so that she would work harder in class and ‘get some qualifications’ before it was too late.

“The only qualification I want is a Cordon Bleu cookery course so I can be a chalet girl,” she explained.

“But you can’t be a chalet girl all your life!” wailed Mum.

“I won’t be – rich men ski. I will marry one and never have to work at all!”

If ‘Durr!’ had been current at the time, she would have said it. She certainly thought we were all stupid to ignore her obvious talents – her looks, her single-mindedness – and suggest she would have a better future if she stuck to the books. A pox on all your books! In today’s world, she would probably have her sights set on a footballer, where the serious money is. And be a WAG. You see, the world accepted her logic and formulated a title for the job.

There have always been at least two problems with the very notion of career advising, apart from the general resistance of the young to accepting elderly advice at all: the first is that historically it’s been done by teachers who have spent their lives in one quite limited occupation. Though there must be honourable exceptions, often a ‘careers teacher’ was actually not particularly qualified in careers per se, edging to the end of a subject teaching career, within sight of retirement and in need of a reduced timetable, armed with brochures about joining the army and all the latest university prospectuses. In a gathering of careers teachers, probably very few would have the same qualifications, which is deeply ironic, and may, in all fairness, be changing in these days of government insistence that young people should have expert advice and the fact that more people have the kind of psychology degrees and qualifications, which must surely be part of a careers teacher’s armoury now.  

 

Fame and fortune can be just a click away – you can access the world with a song from your bedroom, a record producer will hear it and you will be discovered and scooped up for glory without your ever writing a letter of application

If today’s world allows the advisor to consider the pupil in the round, and explore the potential of all their talents, even the ones my mother would have disapproved of, the second problem now arises: the sheer un-knowability of what occupations will be available in the next sixty years for the young people currently clad in school uniform. 

That has probably been the case since I left school, though it was much less acknowledged then, and there was still a residual belief that a good degree was always worth having, it would stand you in good stead, son. “Get the degree and then try to be an actor…” they would say. I wonder how many fine actors never got to the stage because they got side-tracked in the university net?

Now we are much more inclined to urge the young to ‘Seize the day!’, ‘Just do it!’, ‘Go for it, my son!’ Not just occupations, but fame and fortune can be just a click away – you can access the world with a song from your bedroom, a record producer will hear it and you will be discovered and scooped up for glory without your ever writing a letter of application. Start a bedroom blog and end up the nominal author of a best-selling book. Invent a website for – oh, anything you can think of that has not been thought of before. Enter a competition – sing, dance, juggle, bake, cook, train a dog – the world is waiting to acknowledge your talents and make you not just rich but also famous – ah, bliss – red carpets, personal stylists, posh frocks, borrowed jewels, cameras.

And it’s not just girls. I was recently struck by a Speech Day conversation in which there was general agreement that one of the prize-winning boys would be wasted at university, ‘He should be a model!’ And we meant it. We all thought, study can wait till you’re old and grey, but the looks?  Capitalise now, young man. Not so much ‘Go West!’ as ‘Go to Storm!’ 

There was a time when parents would have deeply disapproved of advice so frivolous, so apparently careless of a young person’s well-being – in much the same way they would once have been worried by a wish to become an actor. But now? Actor – next James Bond? Bring it on!  And can we come to the Oscars party?

The encouragement of entrepreneurial spirit has been heartening. We have come a long way from Young Enterprise as a just about tolerated add on to sixth form studies – interesting, but not serious stuff like your A-levels, or rowing, young man – to a climate in which ‘Start ups’ are part of the vernacular and serious people are willing to invest to make them work.  It’s another element of a world in which we seek glamour as well as security.  Indeed, never mind the security, the glamour will do.  We want doors to open into a promised land in which we too are rich and famous, beautifully dressed, in exotic locations, forever young if possible, via plastic surgeons if necessary.  

We must fear for our collective futures if this is now the way of the world. Who would want a mundane life if an exotic one were there for the asking or the grabbing? Who would want to be a Careers Advisor?

In fact, who would want to be a teacher?

Hilary Moriarty taught English for 25 years, is a former head and former national director of the Boarding Schools’ Association

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