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Once and Future Role Models

By Marilyn Gardner / March 3, 1994



THE stock question, ``What do you want to be when you grow up?'' leads to few simple answers these days. In a fluctuating job market, where traditional careers become suddenly obsolete and new careers are invented as fast as a blink on a computer screen, role models come and go at a giddy pace.

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To young women growing up with a vague idea of ``wanting to write,'' for instance, dreaming up a future career seemed simpler 25 years ago. For some of us, there was Nellie Bly, a journalistic superstar of the late 1800s and early 1900s. Brooke Kroeger, the author of a new biography, ``Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist'' (Times Books/Random House), speaks for countless women journalists when she writes, ``Bly's story had greater impact on my life than that of any other nonfiction heroine.''

Bly, whose formal education ended at the age of 16, was only 20 when she began her career at the Pittsburgh Dispatch. At 23 she took New York by storm, pioneering the field of investigative reporting by feigning insanity so she could expose the terrible conditions in a lunatic asylum. At 25 she broke all records for time travel by racing around the world in 72 days, earning a headline describing her as ``a veritable feminine Phineas Fogg.'' At 50 she became the first woman to report from the eastern front in World War I.

Yet if Bly were alive today, she probably never would have gotten that first entry-level job in Pittsburgh. As a minimum qualification, she would have needed a bachelor's degree. (Some metropolitan papers now require a master's.) And if she had majored in journalism or mass communications, she would have faced a choice: print journalism, photo journalism, or broadcast journalism.

Sometime during her college years, Bly also would have been urged to do an internship at a newspaper so she could include that, along with summer employment and volunteer activities, on her carefully written, professionally printed resume. After all, the unwritten message from employers in all fields is: Only well-rounded people need apply.

Add to that a second message from employment counselors: Stay flexible. Even job-seekers who can define clearly what they want, and who can match skills and education with a job market, can't be sure that their chosen field will exist in a decade or two. The information superhighway could put many jobs up for reassignment.

In fact, some futurists predict that those entering the labor force today will change not just jobs but careers as many as five times during a working lifetime.

Perhaps never has the task of getting one foot in the door and the other on a career ladder seemed more complicated, even though the choices-within-choices offer unprecedented possibilities for rewarding careers.

Even help-wanted ads can add to the confusing array of choices. Consider these job titles: director of reimbursement, logistics planner, seasoned shareholder-report writer, compliance officer, office-automation specialist, document-control representative, quality-control technologist, closing team leader. A puzzled reader can only ask: What are these jobs, what kind of education and training do they require, and who are the role models for them?

Where are the butchers and bakers and candlestickmakers of yesteryear? Have they all become consultants, compliance officers, document-control representatives? And if so, how can the young people of Generation X find their bent when there's no simply describable career to match their bent anyway? No wonder young people in their 20s are responding so keenly to the new movie ``Reality Bites,'' in which one twentysomething character tells a friend, ``The world doesn't owe you anything.''

Still, some things haven't changed. Young adults have always had to invent themselves, more or less, as part of coming of age - including young Nellie Bly. The odds facing Generation X are different but no more challenging than those that confronted Bly. A 20-year-old reporter from Pittsburgh has served and can still serve as an inspiration if not a career blueprint. Perhaps that's what a role model is meant to be.