Design for life – notes for a careers lesson


This post is inspired by two things. Firstly by the recent experience of being stood in a field in Essex chanting ‘we don’t talk about love, we only want to get drunk’ along with thousands of other people while the Manic Street Preachers played. While this was a great gig, I was unsettled by the sense that the critical irony in the Manics song was being re-written by the audience into an anthem of hedonistic celebration. This sense was reinforced when both Liam Gallagher and the audience also washed the irony out of Cigarettes and Alcohol at the end of the evening. It was a hedonistic weekend and people were in the mood to dance, sing and drink away their alienation rather than to engage in critical examination of it.

The second inspiration comes from my recent visit to the NICE Academy in Krakow  where Ronald Sultana, Rie Thomsen and I presented on career guidance and social justice. While the session was well received people had a hunger for something more practical. So I thought that I’d try and make a few notes on a careers lesson that I’ve been thinking about inspired by Design for Life. I’ve tried to suggest some questions that you might address through this lesson and also link to a range of resources that might be useful.

So let’s start by watching the song.

The song actually has very few words, but it offers a skilfully realised analysis of working class culture taking in learning and self-improvement (‘libraries gave us power’), oppression (‘then work came and made us free’),  consumerism (‘we are not allowed to spend’), hedonism (‘we only want to get drunk’) and fatalism (‘we are told that this is the end’). Most importantly the song makes the argument that this situation is not just natural but rather that it is a ‘design for life’.

I think that this could be very useful as a framework for a careers lesson. It raises some important issues. Students could develop their own design for life – showing how they plan to balance work, learning, money and hedonistic fun. You could talk about how far each of these enabled or disables the others and how far they can be combined or held in tension.

After this activity, it is worth returning to the idea of ‘designing’. Asking the question who is doing the designing in this case. Are the patterns of people’s ordinary lives that are shown in the song their own ‘life designs’ in the way a career theorists like Mark Savickas might advocate.  Or is the designing actually being done by someone or something else? Why is it that we spend more time working than we do playing for example – surely that wouldn’t be anyone’s design by choice.

All of this opens up some further issues about how capitalism structures our working lives. This brief history of the weekend provides some useful food for thought in thinking about why we have weekends and how this came about through campaigns from trade unions. Recent campaigns for a shorter working week pick up the same theme and make the point that the organisation of work and life is indeed designed.

Another key area of discussion would be to look at issues of flexible working and help students to understand the possibilities (flexi-time, career breaks, part-time working) that exist as well as their rights to access this under certain circumstances e.g. maternity and paternity leave. This also opens up questions about how different types and levels of work open up more or less flexibility.

Finally it is important to talk about power and exploitation. How some workers have relatively more power to negotiate their ‘design for life’ whilst others have to take what they are given. This in turn opens up issues about the dividing line between precarious work in the gig economy and the much vaunted portfolio careers that are supposed to allow individuals to actually design their lives in the way that they want.

Taken together all of these things could make for a rich conversation. At the end it is important to help students to think about what they are going to do. One way to do this is to encourage them to think about this at different levels, for example:

  • What actions are you going to take individually to help you to design your life?
  • Who are you going to talk to and ask to find out more about how they have designed their life?
  • Who are you going to work with to give you more options and opportunities?
  • What actions are you going to take collectively as a citizen to change the way in which everyone’s life is designed.

So this is just a few thoughts to get you started…

Is this kind of resource useful – would you like more of this sort of stuff? Does anyone else have any social justice infused careers resources to share – if so email me and we’ll organise a guest post.


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