Being really good isn’t good enough anymore

The high stakes and impossible predicament faced by most young professionals today
The high stakes and impossible predicament faced by most young professionals today

Recently I had the privilege of meeting several young lawyers at a networking event. The conversation turned to the job market. All of them had had an incredibly tough sludge finding articling positions and were facing ultra-competitive situations at their firms that resulted in high stress and low job security. Then they complained about the prospect of being in debt for most of their natural lives and grimly joked about never being able to afford a million-dollar two-bedroom shack in an “up-and-coming” neighbourhood. One of them, a 28 year old, still lived with his parents.

Sometimes I think, bitterly, that baby-boomers have inherited the earth and left very little of it for the rest of us to enjoy, especially the 20-somethings coming up the pipeline (yes, this could devolve into a boomer-bashing session and general rant).

A resonating example is a comment made to a former student of mine by a Supreme Court justice during an interview. A few minutes into the interview, the judge leaned forward in his chair and said to her, almost gleefully, “You know, put me in law school today and there is no way that I could compete with people like you.” The justice’s comment was intended as a compliment, and while graciously self-deprecating, it reflects the high stakes and impossible predicament faced by most young professionals today. Being really good is not good enough anymore.

I don’t begrudge the generations before us who assumed that job security and a fat pension were the natural outcome of a humanities degree. Really, I don’t. Okay, yeah, I hate them. I feel profoundly sorry for the current generation of young professionals toiling in today’s thankless job market. Their multiple (and costly) degrees, class rankings, awards and accomplishments, and several languages, may be enough to get them the job — if they’re lucky.

But once they get the job, that feeling of anxiety experienced during the interview persists because the interview has only just begun. There seems to be no such thing as job security in the private sector anymore. The competition is brutal and the rewards are uncertain. Detractors are likely to point to compensation to argue that hard work is rewarded with big bucks. My response to that is two-fold. Many people work incredibly hard for lousy pay. On the other side of the spectrum, firms keep boosting starting salaries for associates but people still “leave” in droves.

It doesn’t matter that the managing partner is incapable of finding his own bellybutton, now an associate must be insanely good, lucky and well-connected to make partner.  Assuming you get in the door, surrender yourself completely to the firm and you might just have a job after your next annual review. Huge debt loads, huge stress, huge competition for no job security or satisfaction: that is the legacy of today’s generation of young lawyers.

It’s easy to say tough luck, go do something else. A law degree is no longer exceptional. Careerism is for the soulless. Go travelling. Read a good novel. Go work at Starbucks and focus on the simpler things in life. We can’t all live in “up-and-coming” neighbourhoods. Easy to say for those of us who made it under the generational wire just in the nick of time. Apparently, dignity and security in a good job that allows you to afford a modest home in which to raise your children is now too much to ask for in this country.

Sandra Rosier is a former Supreme Court of Canada clerk who has worked at large firms in Toronto and Boston. Having come to her senses, Sandra currently works as a tax advisor at a Toronto-based organization. Have a question for Sandra? Email us.

Image: penubag via Wikimedia Commons