La La Land and the importance of dual careers


Last night I opted not to watch Donald Trump’s inaugural or engage in any of the post-speech analysis or self-flagellation. I watched it this morning, so that is still to come.

Instead I opted to go out with my family and watch a slice of golden/retro/postmodern Hollywood classic in LA LA Land. For those of you who haven’t seen it – make the effort. It is, as they say, one to see in the cinema. For those that have been living under a rock and haven’t engaged with the hype around this film. Here is a taster.

As ever, when I watch films I’m struck by the prominence that is given to career as a theme. La La Land is about the meeting point of aspiration and reality, it is about power and compromise, decisions and dreams, talent and uncertainty. In other words it is the stuff of which career and life is made of. I won’t offer any spoilers but in essence the film is a meditation on what is gained and lost if you follow your dreams.

La La Land is also (some might say that it is firstly) a love story. It is about the relationship between two people and how their relationship changes their life and their life changes their relationship. As such it reminded me of something which I think is far too little explored in the academic literature about careers. For a great many people career decisions are not made alone, but in the context of family relationships, particularly those that people make with a partner or spouse.

There is a lot of literature that treats career as if it is an individual activity. The term ‘self-actualisation’, often held up as the apotheosis of career, learning and life, is a perfect example of this. We should strive to be the best that we can be, to achieve the most that we can achieve and so on. In opposition to this some of us have tried to argue that this is not the best way to view career at all. Career is about the coming together of the self and the environment, it is about the relationship between the individual and the social structures. Consequently we have tried to bring family, community, colleagues, friends, society and politics into the frame.

However the micro-context of a relationship is also critical to how people’s careers unfold. We talk to our partners about our dreams, we advise them and as in La La Land we react to what they want and try to please them or otherwise. Conversely our career provides a context for our relationship placing strains on it at times and at other points elevating our mood and allowing us the space to commit to the relationship. All of this needs to be understood much more clearly.

In many cases the process of career decision making itself is a joint process rather than an individual one. Shall we move? If you take this job who will pick up the kids? How will we clean the house if we both work 12 hours a day? All of these questions are part of career decision making and for couples and families they are questions that we solve together rather than alone. In many cases there is a pattern in the way that we resolve these dual career decisions. Women get to focus on the home, while men get to focus on the workplace. In many cases this may not be ideal for either, but in a capitalist economy it is particularly likely to disadvantage women by concentrating capital in the hands of men.

Increasing an understanding of dual careers is about understanding how love shapes our working life. But it is also about understanding power and patriarchy and about thinking through the subtle personal and inter-personal decisions through which such power operates. A better understanding of dual careers might ask us to think about how we talk to people about their careers and relationships and how we might bring these two conversations together.

In the meantime I heartily recommend La La Land and promise that it will transport you from your troubles for a little while.



  1. Excellent post. La La Land tells it how it is. Sometimes you have to tolerate some tough times and sacrifices before you’ll get to where you want to be. Wish I had blogged about this first, but if I do (and I must say it’s v v relevant to me as my daughter is in LA studying musical theatre) I’ll reference you!

  2. Thanks Tristram – I loved the film too, and as I work mainly with early career researchers we have a lot of conversations about dual career and the interface of ‘work’ and family, so thanks for providing this food for thought.

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