When I began, there were three categories of jobs. The majority of the jobs were reasonable jobs, with reasonable income, reasonable challenge, reasonable conditions under which you would work. And then there were a few excellent jobs; dream jobs. On the other end of the spectrum were the horrifying jobs, where the only sensible way is out.

In the future, it would not be surprising to me if the bulk of the ‘reasonable’ jobs disappeared. I’ve watched a great increase in the number of great jobs. That’s the good news. But here’s the bad news: there has also been a dramatic increase in the horrifying jobs. From an applicant’s point of view, there is an equal chance of either end of the spectrum. Those looking for a ‘reasonable’ job will have trouble because proportionally they’re hard to find.

So what defines a ‘horrifying’ job?

The first component is doing work for which you’re not qualified. You’ll hear the term “overqualified”: a description that applies to 27% of applicants in the Canadian job market, ranking us among the highest in the world. If you’re overqualified, presumably you have the skillset quite different from what’s required, so you aren’t qualified—which isn’t the same as not being able to perform. You may be able to do the work of a WalMart clerk as a biochemistry graduate, but you wouldn’t be a good one because of the dramatic mismatch of your education and your responsibilities.

The second component, as a part of a much larger problem, is the workload and the pressure associated with it. People are working longer and longer hours, courtesy of the Internet, which is a great tool of slavery egged on by Blackberry, Twitter, and other social media and smartphone-enabled platforms. This has expanded the business day dramatically. If you love what you’re doing, that may be okay. But if it’s a job that’s merely ‘reasonable’, it’s going to become the job from hell all too easily. And because we live in an unforgiving world, the risk of failure is rising. You are under even more pressure to work longer and faster, without any mistakes.

Decades ago, all that was asked of young people was to receive the appropriate education and training. As global competition rises, employers now want all that—plus job-related experience. Waterloo places almost 20,000 students a year in the co-op program. American universities don’t come anywhere near that. The advantages of this are indicative in the rise of co-op programs at other universities. Employers see this program as a kind of long-term investment recruitment process, in which students may audition for the job. The only problem with this strategy is that it’s no longer enough. Whatever you’re doing today, you have to do more of tomorrow. But we have to sleep. We have to tend to our physical needs. And for goodness’ sake, we need to get off our butts at 4. It’s a recipe for disaster.

As far as I’m concerned, if you want one of the ‘great’ jobs, you have to be passionate about the job and do everything you can do pursue it. If you ask anyone to a) get an appropriate education, b) get work-related experience and c) offer an endless stream of new ideas, how on earth could you ask anyone to do that if they’re not interested in the domain in which they’re trying to do those things? You may get by with the incentive of holding onto the job, but you’d be competing against someone who’s coming up with those ideas who is in love with the domain.

Our great challenge of the century is: how many people are we going to leave behind in dead-end, high-stress jobs? I fear far too many. I fear a great loss of talent. For every year your talent is not used, that’s a year you and humanity will never get back. The world is a lesser place because so many people are not realizing their talent. To realize this from the perspectives of students, teachers, and parents, it’s about dialogue—which is not the same as telling students what to do.

It is bogus to believe that you could have a serious debate between parent and child unless both of them were brave enough to tolerate uncertainty. Brave enough for the parent to think that maybe the career path they had in mind is no longer feasible. Or brave enough for the child to bring up ideas that may threaten their parents’ financial contribution to their education.

As a young person, you should not be casual about how hard it is to break out of an established mold. The rules of the past are how young people try to understand what they should do next. They’re a bundle of insecurity; they’ll try to look for established ideas and try to work within them. When you find out those established ideas aren’t working, it is profoundly challenging on a level of personal courage. There’s a lot to be scared about the future of the job market. But on the other hand, if you are scared away from pursuing your passion, then in my view, you are condemning yourself to struggle for the next 50 years. People’s talents cannot be realized under those situations.

It takes work to find your passion, and you can do it in lots of different ways. You could talk to people. You can read. It is an intense exploration of experiences. People find their passions everywhere. They find them walking down the street; they find them in museums, in casual conversations.

To find out? This is the litmus test: do you like thinking about it? If you do—and cannot stop yourself from thinking about it—then there it is.

About the author

Larry Smith

Larry Smith is an adjunct associate professor of economics at University of Waterloo. Having realized his passion for innovation, entrepreneurship, and above all, teaching, he pursued a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Waterloo. He specializes in forecasting and the economics of innovation, working with governments, financial institutions and other companies in product development and marketing strategy.