The Vanishing “Hard Hat” Job

Five weeks before the end of semester, and my friend’s 17-year old is having an existential crisis. It’s the same crisis many of you have had: it’s about study, work and work/life balance. What he’s going to do next, why he’s doing it, and who he’s doing it for. Something Richard Bolles, the author of What Colour is Your Parachute, talks about eloquently in the Three Boxes of Life.

One of the problems facing students, whether they are graduating from high school, university or graduate school, is that today’s jobs don’t have distinct boundaries. You could say, they don’t have a distinct, or a “hard” hat, associated with them.

What do I mean? I mean that it’s harder to find examples and models of people doing specific types of work. Look at the icons we use. Many icons show analog devices. Analog has become digital. Physical has become virtual. There is a disjoint. You may not be able to go out and observe someone doing exactly the job you want. And you cannot do what your Dad did, because even your Dad isn’t doing the same job he used to do.

When my mother entered the workforce in 1938, women were nurses, secretaries or teachers. My mother was a teacher. Men could be firemen, policemen, engineers, construction workers, office workers, mailmen, milkmen, bus drivers, soldiers…I remember kiddy colouring books where everyone had a hat. That’s how an intelligent child could tell what someone “was”: they had a hat that identified them.

Today’s jobs require a blend of skills, and the blend changes almost monthly. It isn’t just harder for new workers; it’s harder than it used to be to re-enter the workforce.

My parents taught me that I could be anyone I wanted to be. I opted to be an archaeologist, a profession that fascinated me, was relatively gender neutral, and allowed married couples to work (and wear hard hats – or Panama hats – together.

After a few years of grad school and a year off to travel and think, I decided to become a technical writer, a profession that was dominated by men at the time I entered it, but in the last two decades has swung in the other direction with the rise of formal technical writing training (technical writing was once largely staffed by failed or semi-retired male engineers). I realized my dream of working beside my husband, a software engineer.

I’ve gone from archaeologist, to job description writer, to technical writer, to career and business consulting. Everything I have done and learned has contributed to making me superbly effective in my current work – but only because I came to realize that what I wanted to do was “hat-independent”, and that all jobs are less about wearing many hats, but rather about being hat-independent. Manufacturing isn’t what it used to be. Farming isn’t what it used to be. Every occupation requires more education, but not necessarily in 2-, 3- and 4-year chunks.

Today’s work/life model is a far more about a balance between study and work, just as much as a balance between work and leisure. You won’t see it on TV. You won’t likely meet it in school, but some of us are out there living this model, working it out. I told my friend to let her son step back from study and take some time to think, work some, play some (he’s musical) and do some forward planning. He’ll find his way , though it will likely be just as different as the way we’ve found was different from our parents’ way. Thanks Mum and Dad for believing in us.

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