Best job for your child? Leave them to figure out the future

Parents should look beyond their own life choices when thinking about their offspring

I once met a consultant whose job was to find places for affluent children in the best nurseries and schools. One client on her list had mapped out his son's life with precision. The boy would attend Cambridge university before embarking on a career in investment banking at Deutsche Bank. The child was six months old.

The father’s hothouse ambition seemed absurd when I first heard about it. Who looks at their baby’s chubby face, hears their gurgling laughter and thinks “nascent spreadsheet monkey”? A year on, it seems even more ludicrous. Deutsche, after all, is cutting 9,000 jobs.

Yet, I confess to premature thoughts about my own son’s future career. When he started school this term I experienced a frisson of panic as he set his Start-rite feet on the institutional conveyor belt. My job is to write about work and careers, and I am assailed by daily predictions of widespread automation and mass unemployment. I find myself wondering how best to prepare a child for the future. There must be a sunnier path to pursue than stockpiling tinned foods and signing up for survival courses?

Most mothers and fathers start from their own experiences – professions and trades run in families. A study by Facebook this year found "people within a family are proportionally more likely to choose the same occupation".


Yet the research also found that while “a son who has a father in the military is five times more likely to enter the military, just one in four sons of a military professional does so”. In other words, most children strike their own path.

Good news

This is good news for my son. I love journalism, but I would not encourage him into an industry convulsed by existential anguish, frequently described as being in terminal decline as advertising evaporates. Who knows if humans will be journalists in 20 years? Automation is displacing jobs in fields from manufacturing to law firms to banks. My trade could well be next.

I am hardly alone in worrying about my child following in my footsteps. Nick Clegg, the former UK deputy prime minister, told an interviewer: "The first, most visceral instinct you have as a parent is you want to protect your children and politics is a very rough business you know." Accountants, shop assistants and doctors would say the same thing. In any case, most children would rather "die" – to quote teenagers the world over – than be like their mother or father.

Besides encouraging or discouraging them into their own lines of work, how else should parents prepare children for employment? Teachers and businesses urge young people to future-proof themselves by studying science, technology, engineering or maths. Toy manufacturers and entrepreneurs have picked up on the “stem” trend.

Christmas stockings will be stuffed with toys marketed on a promise of turning little Poppy or Johnny into the next Mark Zuckerberg. But I am not convinced everyone can or should be a coder. As Martin Ford, author of The Rise of the Robots, pointed out, routine software development is being automated everywhere.

Fantastic career

Perhaps parents should be directed instead. Like Chris Puckett and his parents. This year I met Mr Puckett, who has made a fantastic career and vast amounts of money as an e-sports commentator, hosting competitive video gaming at live events and on screen. His father is a paper salesman, his mother, a receptionist at the local church. They worried about his decision to pack in his degree to pursue what seemed to them a flaky career. To allay their fears, Mr Puckett invited his parents to tournaments. Now they are his biggest cheerleaders.

Some take it further than the Pucketts. Marc Freedman, founder of a social enterprise that advocates second careers in later working life, reports growing numbers of parents following their children into their chosen careers. Amid the gloom about the future of work, I found this cheering.

If, to mangle LP Hartley’s quote, the future is a foreign country – they do things differently there, then maybe future generations are our best guide. So, with that in mind, I pledge to support my son in his ambition to be a space policeman. Who knows, perhaps I will follow him?

Lucy Kellaway is away

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2016