My youngest brother is a firefighter. Or I guess I have to say now he was a firefighter. The department recently forced him to resign. It’s complicated, and I’m not going into the reasons here because they’re not the point.
“I’ve been a firefighter my whole life,” he said to me on the phone the other day, still reeling after his recent separation from a job he loved and worked at for 22 years.
He was a firefighter even before he really was one—that is, from the time he was a teenager, he worked as a volunteer for the county, assisting in any way they’d let him, learning from everything he saw and did. He learned to fight structure fires, save lives, respond to emergencies, and that became his life’s work.
It’s rare to find one’s calling as early in life as he did, to be drawn to a specific line of work and to embark on what turns out to be a long career at such an early age. (He was 23.) I admire him—always have—and I’m sure that when the shock wears off, he’ll be doing good work in the world again.
One thing not entirely in his favor as embarks on the next phase of his professional life is that he’s a specialist, vocationally prepared for a very specific job. Like many who went after a particular, specialized line of work, he’s under-prepared for this moment. So are human resource specialists who majored in Human Resources and accountants who majored in Accounting and a marketing manager who majored in Marketing.
We’re told these days to prepare for a couple of career changes during our lifetimes. Not just job change, organizational change or changing of the guard but to be ready to change our careers, to overhaul our professional lives. More people are facing that today than probably ever before after losing their jobs, watching their companies go under or leave the country. Who’s going to be ready to rally? People who are broadly educated, who can apply communication and analytical abilities to a variety of opportunities. People who are curious and active learners. People who study the humanities and social sciences.
Working life is getting longer in the U.S., where retirement is already an old-fashioned notion. I don’t know anyone who plans to work ‘til 65 and then take up gardening, living comfortably on a modest but adequate pension. There’s far too much uncertainty for that sort of plan. Not only are pension funds few and far between, but social security is always in the crosshairs of some political shotgun, and I don’t know about you but my 401K has been for quite a ride in the last few years.
That being the case, we’ll all be working longer than we were perhaps planning to, so the prospect of changing careers may be appealing. Who wants to be an HR Specialist for 50 years? But if you graduate college as one, what else are you?
I know liberal arts students worry about their immediate job prospects. They tell me that all the time. But the long-term prospects are much better for those whose education prepare them for many challenges rather than just one.