Deindividualising career development

I have written about the idea of more collective and radical approaches to career guidance/career development in the past . I’ve recently returned to thinking about this again, particularly in the light of reading Rie Thomsen’s excellent Career Guidance in Communities. The following post sets out some further thinking that I’ve been doing on this.

Career provides a key site whereby the individual interfaces with the collective. Our careers are at once a unique and individual experience which we pursue alone, and a driver for us to interface with other people. We career through our families, schools and workplaces. We have some autonomy in the direction, and what we experience is our own, but our careers are both limited and enabled by the individuals we meet, the organisations we engage with and the social (ie created by people) structures within which we operate.

Despite this social context career guidance is strongly linked to ideas about the agency and autonomy of the individual. Although there a strong tradition of debate about the role of career guidance in social justice there are concerns that career guidance inherently individualises people and requires them to construct solutions from within their own resources and for their own benefit. At its most extreme this places career guidance in the position of asset stripping communities, by encouraging talented individuals to transcend their surroundings and move into another social class whilst the overall unequal social structure is preserved.

Such assumptions about the primacy of individual action are problematic for those political traditions which see social justice as being strongly bound up with collective action. Watts interrogated this idea and proposed the possibility of a “radical guidance” which could support its clients in building a critique of their current circumstances and acting to change them. However Watts does not explore how such a radical guidance could be operationalised and how far such practices would or should deindividualise career guidance. Ratnam also explores the potential of guidance as a counter-cultural force which serves community aims as well as individual aims in her article on career gudiance and livelihood planning. Beyond the guidance field the idea of radical education (see Wikipedia’s entry on critical pedagogy for one possible starting point) is not new, and there is a considerable track record of how such education utilises collective resources and incorporates collective problem solving and action within its aims. However, such ideas have so far not found a strong space within the guidance field.

Of course not all deindividualising strategies are necessarily linked to any kind of radical political project. For example, it is common for individuals to receive career development interventions in groups. Such interventions can be framed in different ways including group counselling and education and training programmes. The fact of the group does not necessarily determine the content of the intervention, although it does open up the possibility for social constructivist and radical pedagogic strategies.

It is possible to identify four different career development strategies that could situate the activity within a more collective paradigm.

  1. Utilisation of social capital and community resources. It is possible for career interventions to encourage individuals to view those around them as potential resources and to encourage them to develop the strength of their bonds with their network. Such a perspective continues to construct career as essentially an individual endeavour, but it argues that individual advantage can ensue from building social capital.
    Key question: Who can help you with your career?
  2. Discussion of common issues. Where career development is delivered in group settings it is possible for problems and issues to be discussed in ways which highlight common experience and utilise such experience to support group learning.
    Key questions: Has anyone else had a similar experience? What can we learn from this?
  3. Discussion of community and collective issues. At times individual’s careers are impacted on by wider collective and community problems or issues. For example the growth of anti-social behaviour may negatively impact on employment in local businesses. It would is possible to develop both individual and collective solutions to address such problems. Such discussions may also encourage people to reflect on the implications of their career on the community?
    Key questions: How does our community support us to develop our careers? How do our careers impact on our community?
  4. Development of collective solutions. Career development supports people to develop solutions to move their lives forward. However, individual solutions are only capable of solving a limited range of problems. For example young people’s chance of finding work is often dependent on a youth labour market that is largely out of their control. Good career development can’t guarantee individual satisfaction every time. However, if career development interventions also encouraged people to develop collective solutions it would radically shift the nature of the activity and could open up new opportunities. For example concerns about progression and pay that are difficult to address individually can be successfully addressed through forms of collective bargaining.
    Key question: What can we do about this together that we cannot do alone?

Such thinking takes us in an unfamiliar direction. There is a danger that it is seen as ‘politicising’ guidance in a way that is in conflict with ideas about the profession’s impartiality. It is also a direction that is unlikely to be popular with the policy makers who pay our wages. Rie Thomsen argues that these policy makers frequently construct career development as a “governing technology”, essentially a way to convince people to do what the state wants them to do. Nonetheless, I think it merits some further thought and discussion and I’d be interested to hear what people make of the ideas about collective/social guidance that I’m playing with here.



  1. I love the ideas here (not surprising, as I try and encourage collective experience-sharing and solution-finding wherever possible in workshops). I particularly like the last one and will be thinking hard about whether and how I can use this to help, for example, the international students I work with who face prejudice from employers about not employing them (flying in the face of the law!).

  2. When I was changing career paths the most effective learning I accompl;ished was done with groups. There may have been no two of us with the same work goals but the basic advise is universal and it is always helpful for me to hear the questions and concerns that others have. No one knows what they do not know ergo I did not realize I wanted to know “that” until someone else asked.

  3. Groups have been adapting Appreciative Inquiry to focus on collected ” core strengths ” to meet challenges to move in new directions based on the positives experienced by the group participants and their communities, It does work. Individuals gain from the interaction within the group. results suggest communities and individuals benefit together.

    • The latest edition of AI practitioner incudes several interesting papers on communities. I have used elements from similar papers by AI folk in my work with job seekers. I am more interested in the AI model as a tool for small groups within the community as they progress in their work search. The exploration of the communities’ assets incudes the strengths of these individuals.

  4. Three items that may be of interest –
    1) The Dutch Govt. has announced that the present level of public services is unaffordable. Citizens will have to do more for themselves – in what they call a ‘participatory society’.
    2) A report from the Carnegie UK Trust predicts the same move towards DIY – and tries to outline how this apraoch would look in ‘The Enabling State’ .
    3)A paper by David Donnison from 2006 speaks of a new emerging professional worker – skilled in working with communities and volunteers.


    • Yes it is. I also use a number of their hard copy publications. Another site related to their model is
      I am interested in the idea of de-individualizing our career counselling and guidance in our work with job seekers who have been unemployed for longer periods of time.

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