Originally published by The National 28th April 2010
When I was in the fourth grade, I wanted to become a palaeontologist. That’s not a word a nine-year-old would typically have in her vocabulary (or even attempt to pronounce). But I was reading a book on dinosaurs at the time and thought how much fun it would be to dig and look for bones when I grew up. A quick survey around the office where I work resulted in more interesting dreams. When they were younger, my Emirati colleagues wanted to become directors, cartoonists, veterinarians, fashion models, professional football players and teachers.
So how did we all end up working for the government? An Emirati society is a collectivist one. Families get involved in the decision-making process. Whether it’s to select a child’s extra-curricular activity or a potential spouse, the family will influence the thinking process and, in most cases, the final decision. Take my brother, for example. He loves building computers. He spent his teenage years sifting through old discarded computer parts and putting them back together. His peers seek his advice on anything IT related. He had found his calling. Yet when it came time to attend university, he graduated from the same oil and gas programme at the same university my father attended exactly 25 years earlier. Coincidence?
Any young adult will base a career choice on two factors: earnings and interest. Emirati parents have just one: prestige. A wise friend once told me that you don’t matter if you are not relevant to other people. It sounds harsh but it has a resonating truth. Successful parents want to raise successful children, which is why there are a handful of careers that parents deem prestigious enough for their children to have, mainly in the fields of engineering and medicine, or working for the government. If a child shows solid interest in something less prestigious, like digging for dinosaur bones, the dream gets buried in the sand.
This mentality has given birth to an infamous stereotype: Emiratis have unrealistic career expectations. How many Emiratis do you know who expect a managerial post as soon as they graduate from university? I know quite a few actually. They dream of running a department from a corner office with a killer view of the Corniche, not to mention that ideal benefit: a reserved parking spot. This dream is fostered during a student’s senior year in university when the corporate world starts to beckon. At a time when demand for Emirati graduates is high, students get lulled into believing that they have what it takes to run a company, especially if they speak English fluently. A little encouragement and confidence building goes a long way, but employers need to manage expectations and clearly define success in terms of professionalism, not ranking.
Society sometimes mistakes rank for prestige. Young adults are under so much pressure to succeed that their own dreams have to take second row to please their parents. But that’s not going to stop young professionals from living their dreams. As for my colleagues, their parents always gave the same automated response to their aspirations: “Do it on the side.” There’s a bittersweet phenomenon spreading through the UAE right now. Cupcakes. Moist, colourful, mouthwatering cupcakes.
The UAE is ranked second highest worldwide for diabetes prevalence – not something to be proud of. But it shows we know a thing or two about simple sugars. And a group of smart young women have capitalised on this idea. People here pride themselves on their connections, and almost everyone will know who to call to get their cupcake fix. Surprisingly, most of these bakers have a day job, and in order to become self-fulfilled professionals they have gladly accepted the idea of living their dreams “on the side”, even if it means frosting red velvets before heading to work in the morning.
For society, the one difference between a hobby and a career is money. Hobbies cater to your interests while careers cater to your needs. You need a lucrative position to meet the latter and enough left over for the former. Have young professionals come to terms with leading a corporate existence while secretly nurturing their creative streak? And has society started accepting compromise? Society resists change until change impacts society. For now, cupcakes have succeeded in tempting society to reconsider its expectations.