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.


Sgt Bilko and the failure of the boundaryless career

I attended a training day run by one of my colleagues the other day. As an icebreaker she asked us to think about which sitcom we identified most with our working lives.

I came up with Sgt Bilko as he’s always been one of my heroes.

The more I think about it the more Bilko seems to serve as the ideal career model. Lots of the rhetoric about career makes bold claims about the declining role of organisations and organisational structures as determinants of career. We are apparently living in a boundaryless working world and building protean careers.

However, it seems to be that a lot of this is rather overblown. In fact our careers are highly constrained by the context in which we live and work and we play them out in relation to that context. This is where Bilko comes in. Bilko is the arch organisational politician. He is able to operate within a large organisation but maintain huge amounts of personal autonomy through his quick thinking, flexibility and support from his immediate team. He makes the organisation work for him rather than being limited and defined by it.

Of course he is also a malingering crook, but you can’t have everything.

Watch him in action!

Why Sinead O’Connor is giving Miley Cyrus rubbish career advice

I’m going to hazard a guess that a considerable number of the people who read this blog will not be particularly big Miley Cyrus fans. So it might take me a while to explain why I feel the need to join in on this particularly bizarre online slanging match.

Miley Cyrus is a female pop star who up until a couple of months ago was famous for two things. (1) she used to be in a reasonably funny kids TV show called Hannah Montana (2) she is the daughter of nineties country singer Billy Ray Cyrus who had an improbable international hit with line dancing classic Achy breaky heart (I never thought that I’d include a link to that in my blog!) . However a couple of months ago Miley hit the headlines for performing a raunchy routine with a foam finger at a music awards show. She also released a couple of sexy pop videos.

I’ve watched the foam finger incident and at least one of the videos (for research purposes of course) and have concluded that Miley is basically doing the same kind of generic bump n’ grind that every other female pop star offers up to sell some records. However, I’m obviously missing something because this has launched a manufactured moral panic from various newspapers and their columnists (who are paid to panic about our morals). Miley has become a hate figure for various people (both supposed Conservatives and feminists) and is being accused of all sorts of weird crimes. It seems that dancing with a foam finger has a lot more power than I ever suspected. I might just buy one the next time I go and see the Leicester Riders.

Anyway, into the fray stalks nineties one hit wonder Sinead O’Connor. Sinead penned a Open Letter to Miley Cyrus in which she proceeds to offer a whole load of advice to Miley about her image and how to conduct her career. It includes stuff like the following…

So this is what I need to say … And it is said in the spirit of motherliness and with love.

I am extremely concerned for you that those around you have led you to believe, or encouraged you in your own belief, that it is in any way “cool” to be naked and licking sledgehammers in your videos. It is in fact the case that you will obscure your talent by allowing yourself to be pimped, whether it’s the music business or yourself doing the pimping.

You get the idea. (Note: the objection to licking sledgehammers is ideological rather than on the more sensible health and safety grounds). There is a whole lot more of this, including various bits of advice about how if you keep your clothes on you will get to be treated as a serious artist and so on.

All in all it amounts to a pretty dreadful piece of careers advice and I thought that I’d try and use this post to explain why.

Firstly O’Connor’s argument is essentially that it isn’t legitimate to use erotic capital in your career building. It is good to become a pop star because of your song writing or your skills as a performer, but not because you are attractive and know how to captivate or intrigue an audience with your beauty or sexuality. This seems awfully unfair, not least because O’Connor wasn’t afraid to utilise her own erotic capital in her heyday. More seriously, the idea that performers (or indeed anyone) should not use their attractiveness in building their careers seems both naive and really bad advice. Catherine Hakim argues in Honey Money that the attempt to convince people that beauty is illegitimate as a personal and career asset while brains, money, accident of birth and education are entirely legitimate is an attempt by patriarchy to remove a particular advantage that women have over men (she argues that women are routinely judged as having higher erotic capital than men).

Secondly O’Connor’s argument is bad advice because it attempts to impose her career values and aspirations onto Cyrus. Just because O’Connor wants to be treated as a serious artist, it doesn’t mean that everyone does. Personally I’d give everything that I’ve got to perform at the MTV Music Awards and I certainly wouldn’t be crying because no one gave me a Guardian album of the week write up. Advice fails when it lacks empathy and O’Connors mix of ranting and patronising condescension lacks any empathy at all.

Finally, (and strongly connected to the lack of empathy) there is a lack of humility in O’Connor’s letter. Given that this is a woman who spent the early part of her career as an apologist for a terrorist organisation and then came out and apologised for that years later, it is amazing that she feels that it is a good idea to publically attack a young woman for a far lesser crime (if indeed that is what it is). O’Connor was famous for saying deliberately provocative (and often ill-thought through) things to get publicity for her records. Miley danced with a foam finger and then licked a sledgehammer and for this she is being made a scapegoat for the gendered and sexualised imagery that is in evidence across contemporary pop music. Sinead should really know better, and she should certainly recognise that we have the capacity to change and develop as we get older. As far as I know licking a sledgehammer doesn’t even prevent you becoming President let alone winning a Grammy or two for your mid-career comeback album (see Dolly Parton for someone who has done a pretty good job of using her sexuality and maintaining credibility).

I can’t help but think that the advice that is being offered is doing a lot more for Sinead’s career than it is for Miley’s. Given that I haven’t thought of Sinead 0’Connor for years and have now just spent the last hour writing about her, it seems to be working.

Even so I’m still more likely to put on Party in the USA than I am Nothing Compares 2 U, but Jolene is going to win out every time (incidentally there is a decent version of Miley performing Jolene before she’d ever encountered a foam finger).

Stuart Lee – On not writing

Writing is important to me. I think about it a lot and do it a lot less. But, I still do it a lot more than some.

I don’t have pretentions to art – but I am always interested to hear other people talking about writing.

So here is Stuart Lee talking about how he goes about writing and the particular opportunities and constraints that stand up offers.

Lee does a lot of grumpy old man posturing, so I’m never sure exactly how to take him. But, I definately feel that the world of social media/blogging etc opens up far more opportunities for writers to find some space to hawk their wares. Some might say that isn’t a good thing, but I enjoy the opportunity to write for an audience of one and am constantly surprised when someone else is reading. Obviously for all his moaning, Lee has a devoted audience who lap up his writing. But, for me the idea of audience is more important than the reality. By this I mean that writing for yourself is a particular form that is very different from writing for others. I’m a natural show off so I always write for others, even when in actual fact there is no one there to read it.

Anyway over to the wisdom of Stuart Lee…

The dangerous lure of Careers Smurf

Careers Smurf
Careers Smurf

Over the school summer holidays you have to take your intellectual inspiration where you can find it. So like thousands of other parents I was dragged along to the local multiplex to see Smurfs 2. The film is pretty bad and really should trouble you unless you either have kids under the age of ten or are forced at gun point to choose between that pile of corporate Hollywood nonsense and the even worse Despicable Me 2 which I also had the misfortune to see.  However as my daughter has talked smurfs pretty much 24/7 ever since I’ve given them a little more thought than they really deserve.

The Smurfs are a Belgian comic creation which has survived the translation to TV and later Hollywood film with its core ideological message fairly intact. The Smurfs are based on three key values. Firstly and most predictably everyone in Smurf society is basically good and attempts to do their best at all times. This underpins a society in which co-operative living with no money is possible. Smurfs do not try and get one over on their fellow Smurfs. Greed is certainly not Smurfy (with the obvious exception of Greedy Smurf). Although there is some mild romantic competition for the attention of Smurfette, who embodies the Smurfs difficult relationship with feminism – but that’s another post – nonetheless, Smurfs are essentially chaste and lacking in testosterone fuelled drive and so the Smurfette factor never upsets the unity of the community any more than the primitive communinism that rules Smurf village.

Secondly, Smurf society is one in which harmony is predicated on the existence of a natural order presided over by a benevolent dictator (Papa Smurf). There is a place for everysmurf and everysmurf is in their place. The Smurfs, is essentially a reactionary rural idyll in which power is unchanging and there is no process of contestation or change.

Finally, Smurf socieyt is one in which there is both a very sharply observed seperation of occupational and social roles and a faultless process of identification of individuals competence and aptitudes for particular roles. Brainy Smurf and Clumsy Smurf are never going to develop themselves beyond their definitional characteristic any more than Tailor Smurf or Miner Smurf are going to take up a new occupation.

In the latest film, Hollywood plays its normal postmodern games with the values of the Smurf franchise. The primitive communism and idealised humanism is ridiculed of course, but so too is the idea of fixed personalities and clear cut vocational destiny. The Smurfs is appealing because it sets out a world that is very different from the dynamic, complex world in which we live. People aren’t always at their best, power can’t be trusted, our personalities aren’t fixed, and we can’t expect to perform the same social role throughout our lives. The Smurfs might be what we wish society was like, but it is very clearly not a blueprint for social reform.

However, there is too much that seems a bit Smurfy about the career guidance world to me. The idea of stable personality traits, discoverable at a young age and matchable to a social and economic role still get an airing in the popular and policy discourse. I’ve heard lots of people talking about young people being sent to do the “wrong” course or get the “wrong” job, as if there is an absolutely right one out there for them. Of course this isn’t possible, unlike the Smurfs we are adaptable and changable and more importantly we can learn from our mistakes. Further more, and perhaps more seriously career guidance rarely helps its clients to understand or build a critique of the structures of power that exist within work and society. We let people assume that like the Smurf village the political economy is stable, when it is ever changing and highly contestable by its participants, we also let people assume that they will find Papa Smurf when they walk into the world of work. This is unlikely to say the least.

The Smurfs has its value. The call for us all to be a bit nicer is not a fundamentally bad one. But when we notice that some of our rhetoric and practice would work better in the Smurf village than in Surrey or Solihull then it is time to take a long hard Smurf at ourselves!

Do you Smurf what I’m getting at?


Profession by Issac Asimov

I’ve just read Profession by Issac Asimov.  The story describes a future world in which everyone is taught to read by a machine at eight and then allocated a profession (and all of the knowledge required for that profession) based on tests at the age of 18. The story describes a world in which education is entirely functional and subservient to the needs of the economy and in which there is no room for personal creativity and individual control over your career. Critical to the world that is imagined in the story is the way in which their education system destroys the individual capacity to learn, replacing it with vast amounts of factual knowledge.

If anyone has the opportunity to send it to Michael Gove it would be well worth him reading it. In the meantime enjoy the critical perspective that good SF can give us on our own world and fear that Asimov’s might have been seeing into our futures.

Read Profession by Issac Asimov


2 Broke Girl$: A Career Development Fable


I’m a big fan of sit coms and, as with everything else in my life, I spend a considerable amount of time scrutinising them for any relevance to career development. Thankfully Channel 4’s latest US import is delivering all of the career development based kicks that I could possibly hope to crowbar into a blog post.

2 Broke Girl$ is the story of Max, a working class waitress in a down-at-heel New York diner. Max lacks aspiration and hides her vulnerability behind a string of slacker one-liners (which is a rather convenient personality trope for the heroine of a sit com). However, Max’s sassy fatalism masks her talent as a baker of cup cakes (a hitherto under-reported labour market niche – or so 2 Broke Girl$ would have you believe).

Thankfully for Max, Caroline walks into her world. She is a socialite who has fallen on hard times. As befits her class she has vast amounts of self-belief and a strong sense of entitlement. She lacks Max’s talent, but has the education and efficacy to be able to help Max to realise her potential. She also has a degree in business (which for the purpose of the show seems to have consisted of learning a mix of motivational techniques, marketing gimmicks and business planning tools) and most importantly of all she has a heart of gold.

The Girl$ are therefore bound together and both propelled into seeking career advancement for the first time. Meeting Caroline helps Max to get over her self-defeating lack of aspiration and mobilise around the concrete goal of setting up a business. While Caroline’s fall from privilege and subsequent connection with Max’ cup-cake talent enables her to find a purpose and to gain a level of earned self-respect that has previously eluded her.

Max’s narrative provides the focus for the show while Caroline provides a mix of information, advice, guidance and mentoring to drive her protégée towards success. Caroline regularly employs guidance/coaching techniques to push Max forward and mixes pragmatic advice (how to market, how to engage with a client etc.) with deeper guidance that seeks to build Max’s self-esteem and self-efficacy. I’m only half way through the first season and it is clear that although Max has made little progress in her rags to riches tale, she is clearly on the right track. The key message of the show (and this may come as a surprise to the shows authors) is that a career development/mentoring intervention can be hugely powerful and that it has benefits for both mentor and mentee.

So what is good about this show? Well, it is good knock about fun, but as a text for thinking about career development it makes the following points effectively.

  • Self-efficacy is strongly related to social class, but talent is not.
  • Class also determines the social reality within which you operate and defines the networks and opportunities that you have access to.
  • Financial literacy and access to capital are essential to career development in general and entrepreneurship in particular.
  • A career development/mentoring intervention can move people out of existing patterns of behaviour and help them to find new ways of being.
  • Work enables people’s standard of living. Max’s ability to keep a roof over her head is enabled by her employability and work ethic. Compare this to Friends where nobody has any money worries despite the fact that four of the characters spend considerable periods at the bottom of the labour market.

So what is bad/difficult to believe about it?

  • The social structure is portrayed as fixed and unchangeable. While Max might find a way out through her cup cakes, the division between rich and poor isn’t going to change and nor does anyone say it should. This might be realistic, but a bit of critical edge might make the whole thing a bit more interesting (as long as we don’t end up in Wolfie Smith territory).
  • Poverty is essentially portrayed as a series of set ups for gags. The fact that being poor might actually be difficult or depressing is pretty much glossed over for our feisty heroines.
  • The show has a tendency to rely on lazy racial stereotypes for easy laughs.
  • The employment dynamics within the diner are not realistic, with the Girl$ boss simply serving as a foil for gags, rather than imposing any kind of authority.
  • Max is able to constantly indulge in wish fulfilment sarcasm and backchat without any danger of losing her job or being reprimanded.
  • Caroline is an innocent who despite some distaste for the trappings of poverty (and who can blame her) never judges or looks down on the working class people she interacts with.
  • They have a horse in their back yard.

However, these kinds of criticisms are hardly fair. It is like asking Are You Being  Served to stand as a treatise on 1970s retail capitalism.

So I’m certainly going to be trying to work 2 Broke Girl$ into the next career development session I give. I dare you to do the same.