Brett Kavanaugh and why career adaptability isn’t for everyone

BrettKavanaugh

Things have not been going well for Brett Kavanaugh. A couple of months ago he was a hugely successful Conservative judge, an occasionally controversial rising star in the strange world of American judicial politics. Fast forward a few weeks and he is now an international celebrity. He’s now know for four things: (1) he is an opponent of women’s reproductive rights; (2) he is quick to anger; (3) he allegedly sexually assaulted a women while he was in high school (and possibly other women as well); and (4) he likes BEER! (Watch the SNL parody of the hearings if you want to get caught up on this).

This is not an ideal resume for someone about to be promoted to the highest legal position in the country. If you momentarily put aside politics and morality it is possible to feel quite sorry for Kavanaugh.  He possibly did some nasty, stupid things when he was a drunk teenager that are coming back to haunt him late in life. He undoubtedly fears that this is unfair and politically motivated.

If we look to career theory it tells us that we need to address such career crises through adaptability. When the world gives you lemons, you must make lemonade. But, this is very clearly not what Judge Kavanaugh is doing. Kavanaugh is picking up the lemons, throwing them out the window and shouting that he wants oranges instead. It is worth thinking about what he is doing and considering why it might work.

Kavanaugh’s strategy for dealing with his career crisis has three key elements (1) he has a strong sense of direction and self-efficacy. He knows what he wants to happen and has a great belief that he can make it happen. As a privileged and successful individual he knows that usually the situation will bend to him, rather than the other way round. This takes us on to (2) Kavanaugh knows that he has power on his side and understands that career crises are not natural or inevitable but made by people and circumstance. He understands that the ability to make and remake the context of our careers lies with those who have power. Luckily he understands that he has power and that it is possible to wield this power to get what he wants. Finally (3) he understands that he is not an individual, but that his career is bound up with his community. He is not attempting to challenge this solely on the basis of his merit, but is rather collecting other members of his community around him to defend him (see Lindsey Graham’s contribution as a particularly rabid example). This is not accidental, it is an organised form of collective action.

My point here is that whatever the truth of the accusations that have been made against Kavanaugh, privileged people instinctively understand that careers are political and social and that they understand the need to wield power and engage in collective organisation to change the rules of engagement and get what they want. Flexibility and adaptability is not for them, it is for others. The precarious worker has to have razor sharp career adaptability to keep ahead of poverty. But when they attempt to shift the rules through collective organisation and attempts to gain power (for example by forming unions or engaging in direct action) they are told that they are standing in the way of progress. Instead careers advice about the gig economy advises entrepreneurship, networking, building your human capital, sucking up to recruiters and taking initiative. For those at the bottom the argument is always that you need to change yourself, while those at the top keep open the possibility that they can change the context.

What this shows is that those of us who are arguing for social justice in careers are mainly arguing that career guidance should encourage ordinary people to adopt similar strategies to career development as those that are routinely adopted by the rich and powerful. We should all think twice before we make ourselves flexible and adaptable and think about who we are doing it for. Sometimes it is just as important to organise, to gain power and to change the circumstances in which our careers are being pursued.

Thankfully many people are already organising to try and counter Kavanaugh’s confirmation. His career advancement needs to be understood not as an individual matter, but rather as part of the context for all American’s careers. He will be in a position to set the context for much of the way in which people will live their lives. This will include labour law as much as reproductive rights and his record is worrying on his front as well.

So it is well worth thinking about Judge Kavanaugh for those interested in career development. His campaign has a lot to teach us and his confirmation will have considerable implications for all Americans.

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3 comments

  1. You talk about community here as a factor in helping him achieve SCOTUS. I wonder is the FBI investigation will pursue his ‘historical’ community that can help,decode the language of his yearbook (either through corroboration with kavanaugh or in contrast). I wonder what career theory say about this or whether we are truly witnessing a new context for careers.

  2. I think that we’ve managed to decode much of it already! He’s the one who is frantically giving new definitions.

    But, there is an important community dimension. Will his privileged community defend him whatever? Or will people ultimately feel that they want to distance him from the community?

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