I wrote a couple of weeks ago about my least favourite question – “what do you do?”. I am, like many parents, guilty of mulling over with friends and family the question of what our sons and daughters will be when they grow up.

On reflection, it’s a question of a different age – and pushes our thinking (and that of our children) in the wrong direction for a modern society. We should be stepping back and taking a more general view of what will our children’s life look like – work (what you do) is only one component of that picture.

This is such a crucial area. It horrifies me when I see statistics that 77% of Americans are unhappy in their job – from a poll by Gallup discussed in Time Magazine. Also, Computer Weekly recently reported that a job satisfaction study by recruitment firm Monster.co.uk found only 30% of of 228 UK IT staff surveyed were satisfied with their current employment and number of IT staff considering changing jobs reached 92%. We seem to have made an art of putting round pegs in square holes.

Our society is undergoing a revolution that will move work\life balance off the agenda – and get us focussed back on life. We are living in a society that is holding on by its fingertips to a security blanket of a workplace based on routine and tenure from an age where industry and the military dominated. This is especially visible (and worryingly so) in our education system. Look around our schools and you will find children in smart uniforms (military) and bells ringing to precise times (industrial). You will find timetables based on mothers being housewives and not working – and holidays based on harvest time to help farm labour capacity. Its very structure and culture is preparing our children for a life and workplace that is now in history.

I feel that our children need to spend their formative years understanding their life choices. Not to make a decision on their first job, long-term career – but understanding the options of the best practices to live well in this modern world. In recent years, our generation seems to have undergone an experiment of work hard/earn money/buy stuff. We all know this practice of over working while following the carrot of consumerism doesn’t work – so let’s learn from it and help our children find a new, more fulfilling life.

I look around me and see amazing changes in my lifetime. My father worked hard as a journalist from leaving school until he retired on his 65th birthday. He had tenure, stability and a vocation. His education – very similar to that of today – got him ready for this. I cannot see any children growing up now wanting to – or being able to – follow this model.

My father-in-law loved music and the arts, but was steered by his parents in to a job at a bank. He worked there until he could take early retirement from his roles as a Bank Manager at 55. He then followed his true love and plays the piano (often making good money) – and is still enjoying this active music career in to his late 70s. I wonder what his life would have looked like balancing the two – a neat segway between finance and the arts.

For some reason, I’ve managed to find a balance of life through being an entrepreneur. I’m not advocating this path for all – but I’d recommend the flexibility and the sense of achievement. However, it’s not for those who don’t like working the high wire without a safety net.

With friends, I see the pressure of those in full-time employment. Wondering when they might get a “tap on the shoulder” saying they are no longer needed. I’ve learnt from business – that you don’t want to have just one customer to rely on for your income. I believe we all need to treat our lives as being a solopreneur – and having one employer, one pay cheque is a risk our children will not be able to afford to take. It’s a big change – but exciting and will give the next generation a fantastic opportunity to live their life in balance.

The other consideration – which cannot be ignored – is that our children’s life has changed from a middle distance race to a marathon. At the start of the 1900s, life expectancy was less than the pension age. In 1901 baby boys were expected to live for 45 years and girls 49 years. The latest figures from 2009 show that life expectancy in the UK is 82.6 years for women and 78.4 years for men. We now have life expectancy way past the “pension age”. So we are dreaming if we think that any government or bank can square that circle financially. Our children’s life will be much longer – which is great news. However, this means that they need to be prepared for a “long race”, to balance those phases, learn new skills, take time out to suit them (e.g. when children are born, growing up, etc). I remember my father working until his 65th birthday – and soon after losing my mum and then being taken with cancer. He’d got to the finish line of retirement, and then not enjoyed it. I wished he’d has his “retirement benefits” along the way. I’ve been fortunate to have time off in the middle of my life and spend quality time with my wife and children – I’m lucky (and hopefully setting a trend). However, we can’t get our children to believe life starts with a gap year, then 3 years University and then a slog towards a fictitious retirement date! It’s got to have balance – let’s share our learning.

I do fear that our children are sold short by the education they receive (often with excellent teachers – but in a system that is out of touch). They also get a distorted view from parents who want them to follow their path (find a good job, settle down, get a pension, etc). We need to look around us – as parents – and start preparing our children more realistically.

If you want to look for change – just think back to the introduction of the idea of “home working” for executives about 20 years ago. It was greeted by incredulity by some – how could employees be trusted, if people cannot be seen – then they can’t be working, etc. In a recent survey 66% of people said they would work for less if they could work from home. With transport costs and wasted time commuting – this has to make social and economic sense. It’s becoming a part of our culture. The skills and freedom to work this way are critical – but still the bell rings and heads go down as the supervisor/teacher looks at the workers/pupils.

I read an article about education in The Guardian this morning that got me thinking. It had a quote from the late Sir Alec Clegg, chief education officer of Yorkshire’s West Riding and among the most prominent educational figures of the day (he died in 1974. Clegg believed schools should pursue “the education of the spirit … the child’s loves and hates … hopes and fears”. It’s what education has always been about – but often in practice not pursued.

Beneath that quote in the papers was another article headlined “Pensions dispute gives academics work-life balance”. The lecturers are “working to contract” and had consciously gone back to only doing their basic hours – and not letting their work overtake their life. It’s an interesting read – and says to me we need to get our children thinking about what we have learnt over the past 20 years (good and bad) in our changing work practices (and how they effect the balance of our life).

I am fortunate that I can afford a private education for my children. It’s the best money can buy – in the current system. The school believes in a “total curriculum” and successfully balances the academic aspirations with a wider range of opportunities. My belief is that in a system that doesn’t work well – this has the best chance of delivering. However, even at this excellent establishment, I’d love to see these resources re-aligned to prepare children much more for the new work and life landscape. It’s difficult to change a system that wants to work to industrial/military hours – and with staff that have partly chosen their vocation for the comfort of the working environment they enjoyed at school. I believe we will see disruptions in education over the next few years that will start to deliver an education for our children more alligned with future life and work.

I’d be interested if any readers have examples of flexible schooling in action around the world. I have seen the work that Khan Academy is doing via YouTube – and now integrating in to some US Schools (video below).

Please do add a comment with any more that you know of.