I was on a panel yesterday at the IAEVG conference in Madrid with Sareena Hopkins and Donnalee Bell of the Canadian Career Development Foundation, Gideon Arulmani (the Promise Foundation, India) and Barbara Macnish (Miles Morgan, Australia). We had a really interesting exchange and I think aired some very useful and very different ideas about the key trends that are out there which might impact on individuals careers. It highlighted again the value of international exchange and how different parts of the world can have different perspectives on the same question. For example, the fear of ‘outsourcing’ in the first world looks very different when you view it from the perspective of India.
I’m not going to try and summarise what everyone else said (although it was undoubtedly more interesting than what I said). But I thought that it might be useful to try and set down the gist of the main points that I tried to make. I’ve stolen some points from others as I’ve reflected on what was said – but for the most part what follows is what I think are relevant considerations as we think about the future of career.
There are lots of massive global trends that are transforming the way that our careers will be pursued. Some of these are demand side trends (e.g. how employers are recruiting, the shifting nature of employer/employee relationship, changes to investments in training/employee benefits etc.). While others are supply side trends (e.g. how the labour force is changing, the shifting position of disadvantaged groups in society, the various impacts of in or out migration, an aging workforce and so on). There are also some areas that are likely to impact on both demand and supply in a variety of ways. These include changes resulting from automation and robotics, environmental change and of course political changes.
Career guidance sits at the intersection between the individual and society, between supply and demand and between change and continuity. We seek to help individual’s to manage these changes and to help societies to work effectively together. Career guidance is, as Tony Watts often used to observe, both an individual and a social good.
But what happens when we are in times which seem to offer so much change and, depending on your stance and position, so little hope.
I want to urge a little caution in thinking about how we respond to these issues. Of course there are major shifts that are likely to create major issues for individuals and their careers. We only need to turn on the news to consume a steady diet of robots, neoliberalism, migration, casualisation, marketisation and demographic change. If we are not careful it can all start to become overwhelming and lead us to throw up our hands in exasperation. Are we in fact living through a complete social and political collapse? Perhaps even more importantly is such a change going to leave an ever increasing number of people without work, hope and opportunity for the future. Even more important still, is there anything that we can do about this?
I’m as terrified as the next person about some of the changes that I see. But I think that by pulling back we can challenge the narrative of novelty and fundamental change. I’ve been very influenced by the annales school who argue that history is best understood over the long term and stress the importance of viewing social change as it impacts across society rather than just through shifts in the elite. So Donald Trump may replace Barack Obama as President of the USA early next year, but America will not change over night. Shifts in the culture and economy take far longer to happen. Of course they can be influenced by changes in government but never in a straightforward or wholly predictable fashion.
Based on this idea of taking a longer historical view of changes I’d like to propose the following statements.
- Change in the labour market is not new – it has always been with us. Every era worries about change and fears the potential erosion of the old ways of life. This is not to diminish this worry but just to acknowledge that it is always with us. The story that we are told about the stability of organisations in the 1950s needs to be told very carefully to lead you to the idea that life and career used to be simpler. It may have been true for a minority of middle class men between the end of the second world war and the oil crisis, but the idea of the stable organisation doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny. My grandfather lived through the wall street crash, the depression, the second world war, the development of the Bretton Woods system, the oil crash, finishing his working life amid the growth of Margaret Thatcher’s neoliberalism. It is difficult to view this period as a much more stable one than the one that has characterised my life. Change is always with us.
- Continuity is at least as powerful a force as change. The flip side of realising that change is always with us is a recognition that continuity is also a powerful force. If we want to guess how things are going to be in the future I feel that our best guide remains an examination of the past. As James McDougall has recently argued while ‘historical circumstances, like individuals, are always unique and unrepeatable’ it is possible to recognise very strong family resemblances in ideas and events. What is more not only do things repeat themselves but they also stay amazingly stable. So I work in Derbyshire, one of the cradles of the industrial revolution, where we first saw the creation of the sets of social relations associated with capitalism. Many of these relationships remain very recognisable. Despite the fears about change I would guess that in 50 years we will still have nation states, companies, workers, managers and distinctions between the education and employment systems that need to be bridged by careers work. What is more I suspect we will still be declaring that the past was stable and the present is chaotic, just as commentators have done throughout history.
- Things happen over the long run. Short term shifts tend to return to the mean pretty quickly but big trends happen over the long run. Asked in 1972 about the impact of the French Revolution the Chinese Premier is supposed to have said ‘it is too early to tell’ (although this may be down to a misunderstanding). Nonetheless in the era of Trump and Brexit it is reasonable for us to ask whether liberalism will continue to be the driving ideology of the future, or whether we will shift to something else. We are not at the end of history, but we shouldn’t expect the current order to wink out of existence over night, nor should we expect it to go without a fight. So automation is important but the shift is likely to be incremental. On the other hand urbanisation and the growth of slum housing definitely provides an important context for people’s careers (see Planet of Slums for more on this), but the change we are observing part of the same trend that drove Frank Parson’s to develop career guidance in in the early 20th
- The changes that do happen are not inevitable or pre-determined, but rather shaped, and in some cases driven by politics. This means that they can be driven in different directions. E.g. the way in which urbanisation has happened particularly in the third world is strongly linked to firstly the political economy of the cold war and then due to structural adjustment processes. I think that the task of politics is to shape these changes in such a way as they enhance the stock of human happiness and wellbeing. Within this career guidance acts as a public policy tool through which this can be achieved.
So our clients are likely to experience change, but it is also possible for us to help them to gain a better understanding of the changes that are happening to them, to think about why these things might be happening and what they can do about them.
There are lots of things about the current labour market that are likely to be worrying and damaging to people’s lives. For some people recent years have felt bad. They have felt less security, less agency and seen less opportunity. For some this may feel like the idea of career has collapsed altogether. They don’t see that their lives are getting better, they don’t perceive progression and they don’t feel that their hard work will be rewarded by them being able to access the good life. But our message should be that such a precarious existence is not an inevitability. Yes, we may see more automation but the way in which this automation impacts on individual’s lives depends on a whole host of individual and political decisions. Ultimately this has got to be about helping people to find both personal and collective agency to change their lives and careers for the better.
A society where a belief in the narrative of career has collapsed is a very dangerous and unstable one and we are now reaping some of the consequences of this. However, one way to interpret recent political shocks like Brexit and the election of Trump is to view this as an attempt by people to reclaim some agency. They have been told that There Is No alternative (TINA) but they perceive personal problems and are seeking to develop collective responses to it. At the moment these responses may not be very positive or helpful – but they have been a powerful challenge.
If career guidance is to play an important role in society as we move forward it has got to take a collective turn and starting helping people to come together to solve some of the problems of precarity, automation, migration and so on. But if we are going to do this we need to understand what the problem is and what it isn’t.
There may be change but there is also continuity. Work is not dying and there is still lots of work that needs to be done. Nor are organisations nor nations disappearing. What we are actually experiencing is a systemic failure about how wealth is organised and used to facilitate the social good. This is not new, but new problems are opening up questions around the viability of the system going forwards. Career guidance needs to move away from apolitical rhetoric about ‘constant change’ and recognise the political and economic nature of change. Central to this is asking who is driving change (and who is stopping other kinds of changes) and why.
Such questions require us to develop new theories and practices which are much more focused on social justice and which take more radical and contextually situated forms. I’m not sure what these new forms of practice look like. But, I’m interested to find out (ideally quite quickly). So all ideas are appreciated!