Career Choice, a critical juncture

The choice of a career is and will always be one of two most critical decisions in the first few years of one's adulthood -- rivalled only by the choice of a mate. Over the years I have seen many hundreds of students and young professionals through this interesting stage in life (right up to and beyond their first job). Indeed once we tried, with indifferent results, to launch a service that used more objective tests to determine, and counsel people on, what they might pursue as a career. The timing is significant because it occurs at a stage in life when typically the emotions are likely to be turbulent, the hormones are hyperactive and the personality (if there is such a thing!) has certainly not been fully moulded into shape. The 18-20 year old is therefore highly suggestible, prone to look for heroes and role models and a wide range of influences, and is still in a stage of discovering and learning about the world at large. Quite paradoxically, it is also the phase in life when the instinct to rebel and reject all adult advice out of hand is strongest. One way the adult world can certainly help is by providing objective information about alternative opportunities and perspectives, which is valuable and can be relatively valuefree, i.e. not coloured too much by personal prejudice.

Finding one's own vocation

The most sensible and wholesome career advice to anyone in the 16- 21 age group ought to be that the individual should look within herself, understand her aptitudes and interests, if not a passion, and so find one's own true calling or a vocation. Yet, a somewhat strange situation has been developing in recent years. The recent growth and the dynamism in the economy have thrown up a number of opportunities - even beyond the information and communication technologies (ICT). Young people can now discover something after their own heart, which is off the narrow beaten track followed by their parents. Music, entertainment, small business and all forms of journalistic and performing arts-related professions have opened up. Still, the herd mentality is of course evident in all of the favourite 'in-careers'. Left to themselves everyone would like to be an Indian Idol or a radio DJ, it seems! Nonetheless there is greater variety and scope for discovering oneself than ever before. On the other hand, increasingly, it is the older people who do not seem to believe in this kind of searching for a better fit between one's own inclinations and opportunity. Could it be because they are not exactly splendid examples of such a principle in their own career choices? For, such is the power and magnetism of the 'market-driven' mentality.

Must excellence be comparative?

For the young, naturally the most sought after source of advice is from peers and seniors of their own generation. Sometimes a favourite teacher can prove to be a great eye-opener, even an inspiration, if he or she has a way with the young and the required knowledge and empathy. Besides, the Internet is a real added source of plentiful information these days both as regards further education and for jobs and careers anywhere in the world. Along with this, what the young and their parents must recognise is a new element of heightened risk that we are not used to. Greater the variety, the greater is the uncertainty. For every success story of some outstanding achiever (be it Sania Mirza or Dhoni) there are little known talents at the above average but not exceptional level! Here lies the essential tragic nature of introducing the element of competitive success in every walk of life, which we are all guilty of. We have created a society, a system that only worships comparative excellence above everything else, whether it is in playing the violin or running a successful business. Strangely enough, while we might blame the Western concept of market economics and industrial society for this, the degree of such destructive competition in the choice of one's adult occupation is on the decline amongst the youth of the Western nations.

Post-industrial India and the West

There is a big difference between the post-industrial societies of the West and Indian society when it comes to independent decision-making by the younger generation, as well as the prevalent attitude to risk. There are two sets of reasons behind this: cultural and historical. We shall go into both in sequence. In Indian society the choice of one's career seems to be an event of marked finality that seems to stamp one for life. There is no escape once you are typecast as a lawyer or doctor or teacher. That reason alone is sufficient for us to pause and think about how we handle this phase of a young person's life. For some however, the decision has already been taken out of their hands by the time they reach the final year of school. Parental ambition takes care of that, which in turn is guided by the prevailing urban consumerist culture's concept of what constitutes economic security or visible success or both. While what constitutes success might be a debatable issue, the craving for long term security is a very real one in our society.

Ambient Insecurity

I choose to describe it as almost a part of the atmosphere we live in, and prefer to call it 'ambient insecurity' in the culture. Lack of resources does not explain it fully. One must go deeper to understand the paranoia and insecurity that haunts the Indian white collar urban classes and why aspirants seek very similar jobs as their neighbours, in the same few coveted organisations and professions, ignoring all other possible ways of living. This sense of acute insecurity, of skating on thin ice, is rarely articulated but nevertheless, in my view, not far below the surface. It is palpable when one talks to hundreds of students and young job seekers throughout one's career.

In tracing the origins and nature of this ambient insecurity, we might get some insights into many related issues such as: why is the entrepreneurship drive, and even innovation, limited to so few in a country that has so much obvious opportunity for it? As the President Mr. APJ Abdul Kalam pointed out recently, we must nurture entrepreneurs as the major driving force in the economic turnaround that we are clearly embarked upon in India. Yet, the knee-jerk response of many intellectuals is the usual: 'India is a poor country after all' explanation. That doesn't account for the facts fully. Sheer absence of money never stopped the truly adventurous and imaginative persons, as innumerable examples all over the world would show. Infosys, today's most successful and highly regarded Indian corporation, was promoted by a few young Indian professionals less than twenty year ago, with only a few thousand rupees from their savings as capital - and is now worth billions and employs nearly 50, 000 well educated young men and women all over the world.

Regional Differences in India

To go a step further, the instinct to make and save money seems to be limited even to this day to certain communities and regions only. For example, back in the 'sixties, we as students used to find it a very remarkable feature of life in Ahmedabad that the local population was not at all enamoured of an MBA degree whereas the best and the brightest in the rest of the country would give anything to be admitted into the institute of management in the city. The typical Gujarat family, even where the father was a government servant, would naturally adopt a very business-like approach to everything in life. He would have a private trade of some sort going on in parallel. Young men (and now even women) would take to trading in shares and doing part time business like ducks to water. Just look at the evidence: there is a great range of new entrepreneurial businesses and new concepts such as Nirma in low-cost detergents and Lijjat pappads (produced by a women's co-operative as a cottage industry) and the women's Sewa organisation that ran all sorts of profitable services for the community, long before the term self-help groups became known elsewhere in the country.

As in America, it was common for many people in Gujarat to put themselves through college from their own earnings. Long before the business schools popularised the notion of summer jobs, school boys would double up as assistants in their father's shops or businesses during the holidays. Their spirit of independence was matched only by the innate sense of the value of money, and knowing a good bargain when they saw one. Families would buy paper (for school notebooks) and cloth (for uniforms) from the mill showrooms at wholesale rate for a whole year getting the lowest possible price for it, at the right season. And indeed they would insist on buying any grocery items that can be stored for months only in bulk and at far below retail prices! In other parts of the country such habits of thought were found only occasionally and mainly among other traditional trader communities such as the Chettiars of the south. In one case of a famous industrialist family, fifteen year old boys (future managing directors all!), went through a spell understudying the cashier or accountant in their spare time. They were made to write dummy cheques for originals already made, just to get into the habit of it

. To return to ambient insecurity, then, it is a relative term of course-but what is amazing about the Indian urban society is the extent to which it cuts across the classes. At least in my generation there have always been poor relations either in the cities or left behind in the villagers. So when you know of a cousin, however distant, who is a clerk in a small firm and lives in a oneroom tenement, there is (at least in my view) a pervading, if subtle, sense of 118 'there but for the grace of God, go I'. We, the educated urban middle classes (and the bulk of the readership of journals like these), are all only a step away from the uncertainties of an agrarian economy and rural way of life.

Urban society is recent

One must remember that it was only during the years between the wars that the bulk of the urban migration in India took place. At the beginning of the last century, more than 9 0% of Indians lived in small villages and hamlets. Take any family that you know of and you will find that some branches of it came into the big cities only in the 1940's or later. The earliest attraction to the urban movement was the prospect of a college education followed in most cases by a government or public sector job (the civil services, banks and the PSUs), which meant an assured, steady income every month unlike in farming or trading, a recognised status in society, total job security and to cap it all finally a pension for life. In the era before industrialisation and rampant inflation, this must indeed have seemed a godsend. You can well imagine why the upper echelons of the administration and the coveted Indian Civil Service was the ultimate dream though it came true only for the fortunate few. Look back two generations into the family histories of some prominent ICS officers themselves and you would find small farmers, clerks, teachers or priests. Small wonder then that the eager and ambitious parent with all good intentions yearned for greater things for their sons and daughters than they themselves dared imagine. And the way to ensure that was to take the children forever (as they saw it) beyond the reach of sudden reversal of fortunes or unemployment.

Today the preferred way to achieve this is to emigrate at least for some years to a more prosperous country; and the next is to choose a high stakes game such as investment banking, consulting and financial services sectors. Yet, I fancy that one can at times detect even in the most affluent a sense that this party might not last, unless one is very sharp and careful - and the plush car and flat might revert to their previous pumpkin state!

Changing trends

Slowly, the emergence of the software industry and the services explosion (both needing more brains than just capital and manpower) has begun to make a difference. Also, it is only in the past few years that there have been instances of educated men and women from professional, middle class families deciding to be on their own, striking out and away from the conventional trodden path; some are business owners, others are professionals but not after a steady monthly pay packet. Still others have gone in for the NGO sector.

By and large, however, the nagging sense remains in some even relatively well off that they are only a few steps away from financial stringency; this will probably remain so long as they continue to see it all around. Some seem to be willing to bet on the trend of greater self confidence and self reliance which should certainly gather momentum as more such careers blossom and more children grow up with both parents in a number of different occupations, giving the divergence and diversity a social sanction and legitimacy. Already lifelong jobs in the same organisation are a thing of the past and part time jobs and dual careers are becoming more common. The young people born after the 1980's, one hopes, will be heirs to a mature society and evolved culture of personal career choice than hitherto.

S Ramachander has been interested in the teachings of J. Krishnamurti for over thirty years and has at various times been a parent of The School KFI, and member of committees of the Foundation. A student of IIM Ahmedabad and Harvard, he has been a senior manager, consultant, professor of management and writer on related subjects. He has tried to bring in the relevance of Krishnaji to the world of organisations, in his work as a freelance writer, and broadcaster over radio and TV.