The Dream Job Is Dead
It’s time to look elsewhere for the fulfillment we hoped to get through our careers
Over 15 years ago, before the financial crisis of 2008, I started working at my dream job. I was among that fortunate cohort of university graduates in the early 2000s who entered a workforce in which it still seemed possible that we could do anything if we worked hard and believed in ourselves.
For me, this meant working in book publishing: I’d always loved reading, I had a degree in English Literature, and I had a vision of myself sitting at a desk in fashionable (?) tweed, reading the first page of a manuscript and crying out, “I’ve found the next Margaret Atwood!”
And yes, when I told people my job title, they thought it sounded cool and glamorous. But the reality fell short of what I’d imagined. I spent my days filing piles of paper in cabinets and incurring my boss’s wrath when I got her lunch order wrong. Two years in, as my boss was firing me for screwing up some photocopying, she remarked, “I think this could be a nice job for someone.”
She wasn’t necessarily wrong, but it was not a nice job for me. It was, however, a valuable early lesson about trying to achieve happiness through capitalism.
In the grand scheme of things, the concept of a “dream job” — of a job as more than a means to an end — is a relatively recent phenomenon. It’s always been a notion steeped in privilege, requiring a certain level of security and agency as a worker to fully buy in.
Now, as the coronavirus pandemic has reshaped so much of what we took for granted, will be a privilege afforded to even fewer: Whether through layoffs or sweeping changes to their industries, many people who have been fortunate enough to work toward their professional dreams have now hit a hard stop.
And as we look to the unfamiliar future of work, it may be time to reconsider not only whether the dream job is a feasible thing to aim for, but whether aiming for it serves us well at all.
“The question that I ask more than any other — and that stops folks in their tracks more than any other — is, “What do you want?” says Graham Coppin, a leadership coach who consults with tech companies. “And then, next question, what makes it your dream job? What are the qualities? What’s important? What values of yours are being honored?”
While the questions may seem simple, it’s all too easy to leave them unanswered as we adopt the one-size-fits-all definition of success. But the answers matter — especially now—when so many people are being forced to look elsewhere to find the fulfillment they once sought through work.
For many, working life will never be the same. People working on the front lines in essential services are risking their lives in ways that their job descriptions never entailed, and they may live with the trauma of that forever. Millions of people have lost jobs that they loved because they can’t do them from home, or because their employers couldn’t sustain businesses without serving customers in person, or because the domino effect of the economic crisis has required their organizations to restructure in order to survive.
Others, lucky enough to hang on to their jobs, have found themselves questioning whether their employers will expect their physical presence in their offices ever again. Parents have had to confront conventional wisdom about how to manage working full-time and raising children — and take a close look at how their careers shape the lives of their families.
The loss of a job or a career path that you believed was right for you, the evaporation of this kind of dream, may seem like a small sadness in contrast with the deep grief that so many people have suffered during the pandemic. But it’s still grief in its own right.
In time, however, it can also feel like an opportunity, or at least a chance to reset: If you have no choice but to create a new path for yourself, what can that path be? Does your job itself need to be a major source of emotional satisfaction, or could you focus on finding something that helps you achieve other things in your life that make you happy — stability, time with your family, the opportunity to live somewhere you like, a chance to connect with your community, the space to be creative without needing your creativity to drive your income?
Since that first publishing gig, I’ve had other jobs that seemed like they should have been dreamy, but instead ranged from mundane to full-on nightmare. Over time, I’ve given up on thinking that there’s a dream job for me out there. I’m okay with it. It’s not because I’ve abandoned all hope for my career. I’ve just abandoned the expectation that my career can, or should, be the thing that delivers me to a life I’m satisfied with. I’ve learned to look elsewhere for that.
“Ask the question, ‘What’s looking to be created here? ’or ‘What’s possible here?’” says Coppin, “with regard to the qualities and values you want to be honoring in your life to be more fulfilled, resonant, alive. Because that’s all a dream job is.”