Carola Long: Nice work if you can get it? Maybe not

Our notion of what constitutes a dream job is changing

Looking for work? Then forget about the ads at the back of the paper and take a look at the front instead. That's where you're most likely to find headlines about the latest dream job or cushy number that defies belief about what you can get paid for.

The latest source of easy money to make the news is a rewarding role testing sleeping bags for the car and camping shop Halfords, which insisted that "this is a real job". Yes, you truly can get paid for sleeping on the job, £600 a week to be precise, as long as you can "demonstrate an interest in camping". However, if eating Scotch eggs under canvas doesn't seem like a very glamorous use of that PhD, then what about another supposedly jammy job, applying suncream to nubile holidaymakers? The seaside town of Sables-d'Olonne in France has advertised for young, good-looking candidates to spend July and August ensuring sunbathers don't get burned.

But is it as fun as it sounds? For a 22-year-old boy, massaging Hawaiian Tropic into the back of a Bardot lookalike is surely nice work if you can get it, but what do you do if the sunbather in need is a hirsute man with a 10-a-day croissant habit? Let him fry or hope his back hair protects him? And last summer, a position as the caretaker of a tropical island, with such taxing duties as collecting the post, feeding fish and keeping a blog, caused a frenzy of interest.

Apart for the obvious fact that these low-effort occupations are also there to act as marketing ploys for the companies involved, they don't really live up to the modern perception of what defines a dream job at all. In the past few years, and particularly since the recession, I have noticed a shift in terms of which careers have cachet.

Until a few years ago, being a banker had a certain prestige, but nowadays telling someone that you're a traffic warden and you've just clamped their car might just get a better response than introducing yourself as a hedgie.

The careers that impress today are the ones with a social conscience or that are involved with the community rather than existing in a seemingly pointless bubble outside it. Careers that allow people to be passionate about what they do rather than just what they can do with their salaries.

When the Conservatives announced that they were going to attract people to teaching by making it prestigious, they seemed to have overlooked the fact that, increasingly, it already is. Of my friends, the one with the most interesting work stories is a teacher. She is engaged with the world, and better informed about what interests children than their parents.

The more our personal and professional lives blur into one – thanks to email, BlackBerries and pressure to prove we are committed to our careers in a recession – the more important it is that our work feels worthwhile. Getting paid to sleep doesn't mean you've got a dream job.