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Why I don’t think there’s such thing as a dream job anymore

WORDS BY GENEVIEVE PHELAN

Deconstructing the dream.

To put a disclaimer smack-bang at the top of this, I’m speaking strictly in the context of creative comms. I’m talking to designers, photographers, PRs, marketers, videographers, artists, buyers, writers, stylists and so forth. And I also want to acknowledge this entire rumination comes from a place of privilege in that I am able to employ myself, be employed by others, and have regular income streams. I understand this is a niche conversation to be had, but it’s been one on my mind recently, so here goes. 

I don’t think I have a Dream Job anymore. When you ‘climb the ladder’ in your creative field of choice, moving up one rung to the next (i.e. in PR going from an intern to an account coordinator to an account exec to an account manager) you’re rewarded and loaded with greater responsibilities for your progression to the Next Thing.

This level-up mentality breeds drive, knowledge and experience, but what happens when you reach the top and there’s no room for progression? When you’ve landed THE job and the veneer wears off, or it’s not all you’d hyped it up to be, what’s next?


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When I was 12ish I wrote my Dream Job down in a time capsule to open up when I graduated high school. It was, unabashedly, Editor of Vogue. Hilarious, but shoot for the stars etc. Ask me what my Dream Job is at age 22 and my answer is this: I do not have one. And while that’s subject to change, I’m okay with it for now.

If I got an unlikely call today to be offered the editorship of Vogue, I’d probably cry with unabated joy and then devolve into a tragic spiral of uncertainty. Think of the responsibilities, the human management, the overtime, the exclusivity of writing for one publication, the top-down management from publishing Powers That Be and the slow dismantling of the Australian glossy landscape in general. Nihilistic of me, I know.

Justine Cullen retraces her involvement in the pinnacle of the Australian magazine industry in her recently released memoiristic tome Semi-Gloss. It’s filled with fond memories, chaotic ones, impossible deadlines and dismal anecdotes of publishing houses refusing to showcase diversity on their front covers for decades.

Justine’s mountain climb to the top of the Elle masthead is incredible and speaks to the value of setting ourselves out-there career goals. But she, too, speaks of quixotic desires versus harsh realities. I was recently approached for what I could only articulate at the time as my Dream Job. It felt like such a climactic moment in my ‘career’.

I immediately jumped out of bed to consult my girlfriend in the next room, sick and dizzy with the thought of leaving all that I had worked for to fling myself into the great unknown of this new, glittering editorial opportunity. I still think it is an insanely brilliant gig.

But about a week later, just as I started to envisage my hypothetical future, I thought about what I’d said only a week ago to my mother: “I don’t want to sound entitled, but I don’t think I am built to work long-term for anyone but myself. I don’t think I’d be happy doing this and only this full-time”. I remember beauty writer Gemma Watts also said something very similar once, and I thought ‘Omg, I can’t believe she just said that out loud’. Now I’m like, yes! Each to their own. 

But that ‘Please don’t think I’m an egotistical dickhead for wanting this’ mentality is always there, and I wish it wasn’t. When you turn around and tell the world you’d rather jump off the LinkedIn Ferris wheel now than sit for another few years to claw your way up a corporate ladder, it can feel as if you’re perceived as having a giant chip on your shoulder. 

I connect myself so intrinsically to the work I do and consider it a really big part of who I am. I still also doubt my work all the time and make mistakes. But what I used to think would bring me happiness (insert: glamour, prestigious titles, high-profile affiliation, big buildings, launch parties, fancy dress every day and huge work teams) doesn’t align at all with what I care about now.

I want to (and do already) work intimately with purpose-driven, local, female-facing, meaningful brands and publications. I want to face people, intimately deconstructing their ‘why’ and thinking human-centrically about their ‘how’. In all honesty, I really just want to go sweat to house music at United Ride at 7.15am on a weekday without having to bring a carry-on work clothes bag with me. 

I have loved the jobs I’ve been lucky enough to land, and owe everything I can do now to them and their people. They were vastly more helpful than my comms degree and pumped me up with the skills to go out and start giving things a crack on my own.

American author Rainesford Stauffer recently wrote a world-shaker of a piece called ‘Dream Jobs Are a Myth, and More Wisdom From An Ordinary Age for Teen Vogue, drawing on her own novel about coming-of-age in a pandemic. She makes a strong case for the Dream Job trope being a bit redundant these days. 

“It feels like young adults are served a script: Accomplish these goals and you’ll be happy. Put yourself out there and you’ll never feel lonely. Do more, and you’ll be fulfilled. And yet, we know it doesn’t work that way. Young people need space to figure out what matters to them individually – not just what they’ve been told is supposed to,” she says. 

What is better: a high-paying, high-profile and high-stress job, or a lesser-paying, less-glitzy, more rewarding job? I know the answer to that is totally circumstantial and dependent on the person. When I wrote down that cocky Dream Job before I’d even got my first period, I genuinely believed that if a genie granted me one wish to be whatever I could be in this world, it would’ve been at a glossy magazine HQ (when the realities of its inner workings were unknown to me) or Catriona Rowntree on Getaway.

You look at the likes of Lil Ahenkan (Flex Mami), Lucinda Price – actually, the ENTIRE new Nova Podcasts crew – and think, ‘Wow, these women are so many things’. There isn’t one conventional job title to give them. They’ve morphed into multi-faceted makers, personalities and round-the-clock storytellers. I can’t imagine them sitting behind a desk at a nine-to-five, not that there is anything at all wrong with that way of working. It’s just that they are hardwired for a self-led career, so for them, the Dream Job ideal is shattered. 

I often think about a few local women like Annie Carroll (a Melbourne comms consultant for clever, ethical and purposeful brands) and Ash Davidson (master of content creation for the likes of skincare giant Ultra Violette) and wonder what they would’ve written down in their time capsule under Dream Job.

I think maybe diversity in what we are doing, and an emphasis on putting drive behind what we do, for ourselves and for others, is more important than the notion of one be-all and end-all career mission. Because once you reach the dream and it’s not all that it’s cracked up to be, then what? 

Rainesford goes on to unpack the Dream Job trope in her examination for Teen Vogue: “Maybe if so many of us weren’t only focused on defining ourselves by dream jobs, it would give us freedom to reimagine our meaning, purpose and what matters to us in other facets of our lives.

“What if we started those conversations earlier, unwinding hyped-up versions of ‘making it’ that comes with ‘accomplishing your dreams’, leaving little room for the fact that dreams or goals might change based on circumstances, realities like finances, or simple shifts in personal preference that happen as we grow up? After all, even passions can feel fatiguing and frustrating.” 

I’m not writing this to say your endgame – and everything you’ve worked hard for – is defunct and unattainable. I am suggesting, however, that we all start to imagine more than just one title for ourselves. We are changing creatures, capable of wild transformation.

Think of the dream as a moving, morphing continuum. Instead of a destination likely to reek of disenchantment, perhaps we can embrace our career goals as ever-evolving extensions of who we are and what drives us. What work will truly make you happy when frills, societal expectations and external pressures are stripped away? 

Genevieve Phelan is Fashion Journal’s Lifestyle & Careers Columnist. Her writing fuses introspection with investigation, calling on her own personal anecdotes and the advice of admired experts in the realms of intimacy, money, friendship, careers and love. You can find her here and here.

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