You don’t have to be an accountant to achieve career success

New research tells us that those from the upper echelons of society are most likely to secure the top jobs in Britain’s leading legal and financial services firms. It’s outrageous, sure, and we should definitely do something about it. But what we really need to combat is the bizarre notion that only lawyers, bankers and accountants can achieve career success.

The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission’s report, published last week, highlights that elite law and accountancy firms continue to employ young people who are predominantly from more privileged backgrounds. And it’s not just because they have higher grades or do better at interview. It’s because they are targeted actively by these employers, while their less privileged counterparts are locked out.

Sadly, this isn’t really news. It’s an established fact that, while only around 7% of the population have been to private schools, these schools’ alumni make up 70% of senior judges, nearly two thirds of senior armed forces officers and over half of Whitehall permanent secretaries. And according to the Commission’s report, up to 70% of new recruits at top accountancy firms went to private or selective schools.

But this isn’t what most annoys me. What really gets my goat here is the implicit assumption that getting a job in an ‘elite’ accountancy or law firm is the pinnacle of achievement. That the only way to be somebody is to join the pin-striped ranks that file loyally into and out of the City of London every day. That a ‘top job’ has to be defined by salary, status and sleep deprivation.

Clearly, having a high-powered, high-stress job in a swanky office and earning a swag-load of money will appeal to some people. And they might even consider having a job like this, and working their way up the corporate ladder, to constitute some form of career success. But this type of career will not appeal to everyone. And we should never, ever assume that it’s the only way to be successful.

And I should know, because I once made that very mistake. I went straight from university to the graduate intake of a large accountancy firm, attracted to the sharp suits and the promise of my own laptop like a moth to a flickering flame. It was only a decade later, as I teetered on the brink of a senior management position, that I realised it wasn’t for me.

So I turned my back on the bright lights of the city and started to carve out a new niche for myself. A niche that allows me to write, to work with clients of my choosing, to spend time with my family and to contribute to my local community. Sure, I’ll never earn a six, seven or eight figure salary. But I don’t care. Because this, for me, is success.

And I suspect that I am not alone. What passes for normal in the city would be anathema to many of our teachers, social workers and paramedics. Artists and writers sit engrossed in their work, with nary a thought to their office-bound brethren. Gardeners, wildlife film-makers and professional mountaineers go about their days untroubled by the path that their lives would have taken had they only thought to study accountancy instead.

The notion that the indentured servitude that comes with an entry-level position in a leading legal or financial services firm constitutes a ‘top job’ is plain wrong. And it’s dangerous, too. Because it says to our young people that there’s only one real path to success. That if you don’t get into one of the Big Four accountants or the Magic Circle of law firms, you might as well give up now.

We must resist this temptation to allow others to define what constitute success. We must rail against the idea that the only jobs worth having are those in the city. We must reject the lazy stereotype that any young person with talent should aspire to be a lawyer or an accountant.

Because concepts such as top jobs and successful careers are not absolutes. There is no one right path. Rather, it is incumbent on us all to find our own paths. To find the best job for us and to develop our own definition of career success.

It took me far too long to figure this out. But it is something that is true for all of us. Irrespective of where we live, who our parents are or which school or university we went to.

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