Friday, September 21, 2012

It’s Just a Job


You have to hand it to cab drivers throughout the world for providing some of the most interesting bits of wisdom at the least expected of moments. Yesterday (19 September, 2012), I met a cab driver with a story to tell.

Cab drivers in Singapore are usually older men who ended up driving taxis as a last resort. Speak to enough of them and you’ll find that they’ve been retrenched from elsewhere and had no other way of making a living. This is probably the only job in Singapore that is restricted for the natives.

My driver was different. He was four years younger than me. He was educated (diploma in mechanical engineering from Singapore Polytechnic), and  he chose to go into taxi driving – this was a chap who had a job in a German engineering company and then quit once they offered him a supervisors role.

Unlike the majority of cab drivers, this chap liked his job except for the fact that it killed he chances with the chicks. He pointed out that he would meet girls, get chatting and the moment he revealed he was a cab driver they’d refuse to speak to him. His point was, “I don’t see what’s wrong with being a taxi driver. It’s an honest living.”

This point struck home. In the last decade that I’ve lived in Singapore, I’ve often found that you are what you do for a living. It’s not enough to make an honest living. You’re supposed to do something that is ‘worthy’ of what everyone else expects you to do.

I remember returning to Singapore after university and selling antiques at five bucks an hour. It wasn’t great but it was cash in hand every day and money that I earned and didn’t take from Dad.

After a while Dad had to say, “Much as I respect you wanting to work, I’d rather you focus on building your career.”  It didn’t take long for me to realize what he meant. The market place is brutal. Within six-months of graduation, one should have ones foot in an industry – which means either working for the government or a respectable company.

I had to learn some harsh truths about job hunting. To be it was a numbers game until Gerard Lim; former General Manager of Leo Burnett’s Singapore explained things. He pointed out that I would “Never” be considered for jobs in things like “tele-marketing” (though I did have a stint in a call centre). I thought it was because I had “no experience.” He told me it was because I was “too good.” As a graduate, particularly one from a prestigious college, nobody would stay in such a job for long and so there was no point hiring me.

As far as the world was concerned, I was something because I had a degree and I was therefore expected to do only a certain type of job. This in turn meant that I would only mix with a certain social circle and builds my life from there.

My peers in the agency game or even from the army and university have lived the lives that their jobs and education expected them to live. Every PR agency professional I’ve worked with moved from a smaller agency to a bigger one and a few have gone into the client side. They have lots of friends from the profession and even married within the profession.

In many ways, the Western world is more relaxed about what you do for a living and social mobility is more fluid. This is especially true of the “artistic” world. Every waiter in Los Angeles is an aspiring screen writer or actor who is merely doing a job to pay bills until the big break arrives. Harrison Ford (he of Han Solo and Indiana Jones fame) was a carpenter before he got his big break (Han Solo).

When I was going through long spells of unemployment, my mother would lament that I lived in Singapore and not in the West, where I could do a simple job while looking for a “career.” My sister, who lives in London, was perhaps luckier than me in this respect. She’s worked in a shop as a shop assistant for several years to help pay her bills while she did her art work.

However, even the Western world isn’t exempt from imposing expectations. My sister tells me that “Middle Class” mothers loath her. The reason is simple – she speaks with a “posh” accent which gives away the fact that she’s got a ‘public’ (to non Brits, that’s private and exclusive) school and a decent university background. To the Middle Class, someone who speaks like her should not be working in a shop.

So, where does this leave us? Well, the only thing one can do is to accept that certain things will always be a certain way. It will take time for people to change their views on certain issues. In Singapore it’s particularly tough; thanks to a culture that demands everyone’s devotion to material success.

 However, things will have to change – the population is getting greyer and jobs (particularly the nice cushy ones) are getting scarcer.  So just as people can expect to change careers within a lifetime, they also have to be prepared to take ‘ordinary’ jobs from time-to-time, just to pay the bills.  

Both employers and employees need to see this and adjust their thinking and actions towards this fact. People like me with ‘unusual’ job histories might have a future. I remember telling Frank Young co-founder of the Weekender that I didn’t think I was employable. He argued that I was VERY employable; I merely had to focus on the things I did (G2G, litigation, GE, UL, 3M and Alcon) and not where I had been (one-man-show and SME).

People like me should be encouraged by the advertising industry, where you had legends like David Ogilvy, founder of Ogilvy & Mather, who worked as a chef and farmer before he entered the profession at the ‘old’ age of 38. Unfortunately, the industry has become ‘standardised’ and people with job histories like Ogilvy usually lose out to fresh ‘communications graduates.’ This needs to change. Employers need to become creative at milking the value of people with ‘unusual’ job histories instead of chucking them aside in favour of people they think they can mold.

Employees or perspective job seekers need to accept that ‘any’ job has value provided one takes it positively and understands that one can pick up skills in menial jobs that will prove useful in later life.
I remember Gucharandan Das arguing that too employers expected new employees to have skills. His argument was, “You hire based on attitude and train for skills.” A person who has done menial work can be a person with the right attitude.

There’s also a case for developing and accepting that people will need to be independent. I think of my Uncle Nick (Mum’s cousin-in-law) who once had a high flying job in the City. He believes that having worked in all sorts of jobs gave him confidence that he’ll always be able to make a living and so was not beholden to employers and was therefore able to be more professional for his employers.

It’s such a shame that many of us have this mental block when it comes to appreciating the value of work. A person is not defined by his job. A job can make a person and it can say a lot about a person. Some people are more ambitious than others. However, the worth of a person and job shouldn’t be defined by a monetary value. I think of the cab driver who can’t get a date.

To me, he’s found the secret to happiness. I suspect he’s under divine protection – someone out there is weeding away the type of girls that are too shallow for him.  

1 comment:

kelvintan73 said...

For this topic, you would love reading and hearing Alain De Button and his book, Status Anxiety!