Photo by Peter Dazeley
Artillery Row

Dreams or delusions?

Why following your dreams can be a nightmare

At the last Oscars ceremony, whilst picking up his award for best supporting actor, Ke Huy Quan had some words of wisdom for audiences around the world. “To all of you out there, please keep your dreams alive,” he said, adding that he had almost given up on his.

Hankies came out; Hollywood’s finest stood in admiration; you get the picture. Yet, consider an alternative, uncomfortable hypothesis: what if Quan had issued some of the worst advice an adult can give?

The UK’s low productivity is a sign of overhyped dreams

Looking at the British economy, with its myriad issues, you might say that the encouragement of “dreams” is having ruinous effects. Supply (of skills) and demand (of jobs) haven’t met for well over a decade, and it shows.

Much of this is because deep down inside most Brits lies a philosophy, which Quan appealed to in his speech. Westerners generally tend to think that they can be anyone if they put their mind to it, a belief so entrenched that people may not realise it’s just that — a belief.

The “keep your dreams alive” message is everywhere. It’s the reason why programmes like X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent resonate powerfully with the public, and why self-help books about getting rich fly off the shelves.

It’s also part of the reason why the demand and supply of skills don’t match, due to young adults’ lack of pragmatism about careers. It’s not their fault they’re like this — they have been indoctrinated into the idea that if you “choose a job you love … you will never have to work a day in your life”. Most of their decision-making follows from this when it comes to jobs and academia.

The UK’s low productivity is one of the main signs of overhyped dreams. You can’t help thinking that the majority of British teenagers have been told “be true to yourself” or “follow your heart” when asking their teacher if they should do the “boring” course or the one that sparks their excitement.

Sometimes this is good advice. Some people really do have the talent and dedication to achieve their highest aspirations. It is not so helpful when we send every teenager under the sun to university, even if they aren’t particularly academic. The result is huge numbers of graduates with skills employers don’t want, leaving massive holes in industries such as construction (where employers do want staff). The dissonance between their expectations of life and reality begins to jar.

Currently some of the degrees most in demand are medicine and dentistry, veterinary science and allied medicine subjects (such as physiotherapy). To be fair to whippersnappers, these do attract strong competition. The trouble is the number of non-graduate roles that Brits are iffy about, including in hospitality and retail.

Moreover, masses of undergraduates continue to choose degrees that aren’t in demand and don’t pay well, such as media and psychology. (Irony alert: I did psychology but now work in the media.)

Record immigration levels make our economic issues worse

Typically when there are productivity gaps, the Government turns to immigration to fix things. In moderation, this brings significant benefits. Record levels make our economic issues worse, however.

With a higher demand for infrastructure, especially housing, rental prices and the cost of living subsequently rise. This makes jobs in hospitality and other recruiting sectors almost unfeasible, as Brits can’t see how they’ll survive on the wage. It may be that they are not snobby about these jobs, but about the lifestyle they entail. Meanwhile, our political class relies on workers from abroad, hoping that they won’t mind so much about squalid conditions. Dreams are only for Brits, it seems, according to the liberal elite.

Whenever someone criticises the British education system, with all its promises of a degree leading to the job you want, they tend to be accused of not caring about social mobility, or of denying others the opportunities they’ve had — even when they are trying to be helpful.

A reality check is coming though. As the economy worsens, more young Brits will want to emigrate. Some say Brexit will be the biggest barrier to doing this, but the problem may be not having the right skills. Australia, for instance, is hunting for police officers and nurses, the latter of which we tend to rely on immigration to fill. Brits, with their numerous degrees in the arts and non-practical fields, are likely to find themselves out in the cold.

The truth is that very few are lucky enough to love their job. Even if they do, they may find that market conditions negate the enjoyment factor. Quite simply, if you don’t have in-demand skills, employers can push you around more. It may be harder to get a pay rise: companies know there are thousands more like you waiting in line.

With in-demand skills, graduates can have a more stable life — financially, emotionally and otherwise. Case in point: whilst recently on holiday in Bali, I met several “digital nomads”, who work from wherever they want in the world. Most were in technological fields, one of sectors needing workers the most. They were able to set fantastic market conditions for themselves, basking in the sun before logging on to do a few hours of tasks.

In essence, being practical about further education can lead to a different type of “making it”. We forget that things like wealth and work/life balance, which may sound a bit boring when you’re 18, really do matter. This is not least because they give you the time to pursue what you love as a hobby. You don’t have to do something as a full-time profession to enjoy it, after all. The delusion that you can may even spoil your enthusiasm.

Perhaps it’s just that I’m getting older, but I can’t help feeling that the “anyone can succeed” model has shattered more dreams than it ever made.

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