Douglas Coupland: unemployed

My first job ever was bussing tables at Ricky’s Pancake House when I was 14. I loved it. I then got a job selling souvenirs at BC Lions football games, though I felt a bit conflicted selling people useless crap made of plastic. (But now that useless crap sells on eBay for a lot more than they paid for it, so who’s conflicted now?) Through high school I worked at a Chevron gas station after class and on weekends – that was back when cars were easy to take apart. I looked under the hood of my car last week and it was like the inside of a laser printer. I put the hood back down and backed away from the vehicle slowly.

I’ve loved every job I’ve ever had but once the learning curve ended I’d usually leave quickly, regardless of the pay. To this day, I always try to take on a new project once a year in some new realm so that I’m always learning something.

I remember, growing up, being told that in the future we’d have six different careers. Our mistake in thinking that back then was that we thought the careers would happen one after another when, in fact, our six different careers all happen at the same time. To work in, say, a magazine office these days, you have to know how to write, how to do typography, how to use Photoshop, how to be a photographer, how to do layout, how to do PR, how to research . . . and on and on. Someone with 1994 skills would have to run fleeing from a 2014 job interview.

In 1991 I wrote about the McJob. McJobs are just the same as they always have been except these days McJobbers are working alongside senior citizens without pensions. I think we all have to face the fact that we’re all going to be working to the grave. Even the most casual knowledge of logarithms makes this clear but, remember, pensions were designed when people died at 67, so the tradeoff for no pension is that you get to live for 10 or 15 years longer than you used to. Of course, you’ll be living longer working a McJob. Catch 22!

I’m sometimes asked for career and education advice, and it seems to always cleave into two specific questions: 1) Should I be practical and take a job that pays well over something I enjoy doing that isn’t quite so practical? And, 2) How do I prepare myself for a future which is going to be filled with technologies that don’t exist now?

When I give my answers, I am careful to point out that I’m technically unemployed and that in many ways I’d make a terrible employee. In the end, the only things that save me are that I like to work with good people and that, while I am not patient, I am disciplined.

First, my advice regarding being practical? Do what you like doing. If you’re successful at a job you don’t care about or don’t like, or if you make money from a job you don’t care about, it won’t mean anything to you – in fact, you’ll be contemptuous of your “success”. But at that point you’re old and it’s too late to relive your life . . . so you become bitter. Ask anyone over 50 which is more important, “time or money”, and they’ll always tell you, “time”. While you can sometimes make more money, you can’t make more time. It’s gone.

The thing about doing what you like doing is that many people don’t actually know what they like doing. This may well be nature’s way of ensuring there will be people to work at the DVLA in Swansea but, while you’re still young, try as many things as you can and figure out what it is you like the most. That’s very practical advice.

Second, how do I inoculate myself against the future? How am I going to remain relevant in a world of unforeseeable technologies? Again, do what you like doing. If you like making shoes, then try to do it. In 20 years we may be using lasers and 3D printing to make shoes but you’ll still be excited by your job and take pride in what you do. So you’re inoculated against the future.

I went to art school, which is about as close to not caring about getting a job as you can be while still technically being in a school. I was in a good year with lots of really great, talented people. In the decade following art school, one by one, people fell away and took jobs for the money. But the thing about taking a job for the money is that you never go back to doing what it was that defined your core being. If you’re going to take a job for the money, remember it’s going to be almost impossible to go back.

Pressure comes at us from so many directions to make money, more money, get something secure. That’s capitalism and I accept that. Every culture has its own pressures and invisible thrusts. In North Korea there’s probably a lot of pressure on young people to learn how to hold up stadium flash cards at the right moment. Ultimately, here’s the biggest litmus of all: if you aren’t enthusiastic about doing something, it probably isn’t for you. It’s good advice.

Douglas Coupland is the author of ‘Generation X’. His latest novel, ‘Worst. Person. Ever.’, is published by Heinemann

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