A large crowd of people

Description automatically generated

Your choice of a career can have life-long implications. This is true whether you are a high school or college student preparing to enter the workforce, or an experienced worker considering switching to a different field.

In addition to the conventional information sources that are available to help guide such choices, gerontologist Dr. Karl A. Pillemer offers a novel set of data on choosing a career. He asked his “experts” — nearly 1,200 seniors (at least 65 years old, and often 80 or 90 years old) — what they would recommend to the next generation regarding choosing a career and five other areas. He summarized his findings in “30 Lessons for Living—Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans,” published in 2011.

Dr. Pillemer used several techniques to collect information from nearly 1,200 seniors. Among other things, he conducted interviews (averaging about 20 minutes each) with a randomly-selected sample of 314 respondents (whose average age was 74). He also conducted interviews (typically lasting one hour or more) with a non-random sample of 240 others (whose average was 81). He sought information in six areas — marriage, careers, child rearing, aging, avoiding regrets, and remaining happy despite setbacks. In each of these six areas, he consolidated his results into five findings — a total of 30 “lessons.”

Here are his findings, garnered from these “experts,” along with my comments.

1.) “Choose a career for the intrinsic rewards, not the financial ones. The biggest career mistake people make is selecting a profession based only on potential earnings. A sense of purpose and passion for one’s work beats a bigger paycheck any day.”

Agreed, in part. This conclusion may demonstrate 20-20 hindsight. At age 70 or beyond, people may wish they had chosen a career that provided more satisfaction. But when they were starting out, or when they were mid-career, the pressure to pay the mortgage, day school tuition, and other expenses may have swayed them to choose bigger paychecks over more satisfaction.

2.) “Don’t give up on looking for a job that makes you happy. According to the experts, persistence is the key to finding a job you love. Don’t give up easily.”

Agreed. Switching jobs, and even careers, is far easier today than it was in previous generations. His “experts” entered the workforce 45 to 70 years ago.

3.) “Make the most of a bad job.If you find yourself in a less-than-ideal work situation, don’t waste the experience; many experts learned invaluable lessons from bad jobs.”

Agreed. In my experience, you can learn something from every manager or co-worker. From the good ones, you can learn what to emulate. From the bad ones, what to avoid.

4.) “Emotional intelligence trumps every other kind. Develop your interpersonal skills if you want to succeed in the workplace. Even people in the most technical professions have their career torpedoed if they lack emotional intelligence.”

Agreed. Being technically adept is necessary, but not sufficient, to succeed. Don’t be “smart in the classroom but dumb on the playground.”

5.) “Everyone needs autonomy. Career satisfaction is often dependent on how much autonomy you have on the job. Look for the freedom to make decisions and move in directions that interest you, without too much control from the top.”

Agreed. Relative to the past, modern management theory emphasizes the importance of autonomy for workers at all levels.