The end of the career: A long view


I argue that we may be witnessing not the stopping and stalling of some careers but the more far-reaching conclusion that the very idea of a career may be coming to an end. In what follows, I tease out the social implications of the end of the career and then provide some prima facie evidence in support of this speculative thesis courtesy of Google Ngram Viewer.


In a New York Times article evocatively entitled “Generation Limbo” (August 31, 2011), Jennifer Lee reports that post-graduates are “stuck in neutral,” forced to pick up odds and ends jobs as they wait for the opportunity to pursue their chosen careers. Some expressed consternation, others anxiety and bitterness, a few a sense of injustice. Many are now placing greater emphasis on networking and hustling as they mull over the idea of pursuing advanced degrees in their respective or adjacent fields. None seemed to think that the crisis might go any farther than this—that it might signal the end of the very idea of the career.

Perhaps what we are witnessing, though, is not the speeding up of career change during a precarious economic period or the slowing downof career advancement but a Gestalt shift in the very nature and shape of work life. The prevalence of underemployment, outsourcing, downsizing, freelancing, interning, consulting, and volunteering may, together, be a qualitative indicator that the career as an organizing principle is coming to an end. How can this be?

Our current understanding of the career first came into being with the rise of commercial society. Before the eighteenth century, you wouldn’t have heard of a priest having a career; he had a calling. Or an apprentice having one; he was first a journeyman, then a master. Or an aristocrat; he had an inheritance and an estate. Or a governess; she was put in service. Or even a farmer; he was a steward. Persons inhabited the social roles into which they were born; they did not develop, progress, or break free.

Not, that is, until the emergence of the bourgeoisie as a epoch-changing social force. Unlike the medieval order which was divided into those who prayed, fought, and worked or the four noble professions of the ancient regime, the career was an egalitarian category for a newly democratic age: an occupation freely chosen and entirely self-directed. Behind the power of industrial development was the aspiration ofupward mobility. Heading to the city was a heroic (and at times a tragic) journey whose aim was to rise above one’s station and achieve financial prosperity. The epitome of individuality, freedom, and success, the career thus came to be a substitute for lost familial and communal ties as well as a secular narrative of a well-led life. By the 1830s, it had become common sense. So George Eliot: his estate tied up, “Harold must go and make a career for himself.”

Then feminism and civil rights came along and made it possible, at least in principle, for everyone to have a career. This was true so long as you met five conditions. First, you had to complete the appropriate training, the result being either the relevant certificate or degree. Second, you had to work for an organization or a certain kind of organization. Third, you had to stay long enough in your selected field. Fourth, there had to be a clearly laid-out course of progress or path of advancement. Fifth, there needed to be readily identifiable pinnacles of success. A career, accordingly, was a structure of meaning, a narrative of self-development without reference to God, nation, or family.

What today has led to the end of the career can be felt at every point. Higher education is becoming exorbitantly expensive, overleveraged by loans, swimming in debt, potentially approaching a bubble. Moreover, rising unemployment among 20-somethings and newly-minted lawyers suggests that the social contract linking the accredited institution and the conferred degree to the resilient organization is coming undone. Meanwhile, organizations are “thinning out,” breaking up projects and transferring out work, and “hollowing out,” transforming themselves from a bureaucratic hierarchy into a horizontal network. Meanwhile, the free market, pushed to its logical extreme, has created a permanent condition of free agency. As organizations undergo structural changes and workers become hustlers, the idea of incremental progress cannot retain its sense. Amid talk of excessive executive pay and praise for sexy start-ups and young entrepreneurs, amid social anxieties of “treading water” or “going in circles,” it has become less and less clear what garden-variety success actually looks like and how it is to be achieved.

Once there were warriors and saints, poets and coopers. Once there were men of virtue called to act nobly, striving for higher things. For a time, there were farmers living according to the diurnal turns of the sun and the felt rhythms of the seasons. They are gone, mostly, but they remind us that a life that can go otherwise.

If a social order into which an ideal of a good life is embedded should happen to change, then so must its ideal. So that if the careerist life script is now passing away, perhaps it is just as well. Perhaps it was not all that great after all since it made us, at our worst, into strangers, schemers, and free-riders. Perhaps this transition will give us the time we need to reflect upon what matters most. We may find, after all this, that doing good work and contributing to the common good are more than good enough; they are life works. 

Social Implications

If, as I argue, we are witnessing the end of the career, then we would expect to see social science and cultural experience confirm this claim in the coming years. Before then, we would expect to see our vocabulary lag behind social reality as people continue to think in terms of careers, career placement, career counseling, career advancement, career change… and become frustrated with the shape and direction of their lives in turn. As sense-making creatures, we hold onto concepts and categories even after they have stopped making sense of social reality.

The social implications of this line of thought could be far-reaching. During every recession in recent years, presidents from Reagan to Obama have spoken about the need to formally re-educate the unemployed, underemployed, and poorly skilled. Though I cannot make the case here, this approach is wrong-headed, costly, and it is based on a number of unwarranted assumptions. Yet as the concept of the career becomes applicable to fewer and fewer cases (to doctors and lawyers perhaps but not to plumbers, artists, start-ups, or seasonal workers), hopefully we would learn how to free ourselves from the discourse of professionalization, the clarion call of educational retraining, and the trope of upward mobility.

Prima Facie** Evidence

1. ‘Career,’ 1500-2008. As we would expect, the first graph shows that “career” appears more and more frequently during the rise of industrial capitalism, 1800-2000.

2. ‘Career’ and ‘Profession,’ 1500-2008. Notice how the second graph rises upward from 1800-1900. My hypothesis is that the relative decline in the use of the profession (1900-2000) could be due to the success of professionalization. The latter had been taken for granted. (On the rise of professionalization during the second half of the 19th C., see, e.g., Burton Bledstein, The Culture of Professionalism.)

3. ‘Career Advancement,’ 1500-2008. From 1950-2000, we see an explosion in the usage of ‘career advancement.’ After 2000, we see a sharp decline.

**Note: I call the evidence “prima facie” not least and not only because the amount of data, the validity of the data, and the methodology of Google Ngram Viewer could, I’m sure, be called into question. However, I don’t believe my speculative case rests on the strength of this evidence.

5 thoughts on “The end of the career: A long view

  1. Thanks, Emeri Gent, for writing this thoughtful, personal reply.

    There’s a simple litmus test we could use to assess whether my speculative thesis has any validity. It is: Could a serious *contemporary* writer write a Bildungsroman or Kunstlerroman? I don’t think so.

    So what am I claiming exactly?

    1. That each social order posits an ideal (or a few ideals) of a well-lived life. Simple case: Homeric society posits the ideal of the warrior. I would submit that the modern social order posited the ideal of the Professional who had a Career.

    2. As a social order passes out of existence, so must the ideal embedded within that social order.

    3. The modern social order is passing out of existence. Hence, so–slowly–must the career.

    4. There is, however, a “lag time” as individuals continue to attach meaning to an ideal–here, a career–despite the fact that it applies less and less to a newly emerging social reality.

    5. At the individual level, applying the notion to a social world where having a career is becoming less and less viable creates *mental strife*.

    As I was reading your reply, it occurred to me that you were “halfway home.” On the one hand, you see that the concept of a career has not and does not apply to the shape of your life. On the other hand, you’re still using career notions here and there: e.g., “randomness of my own career path.” These notions are still circulating, so to speak, in your vocabulary.

    To go past the career as a way of thinking, as a conception for living, as an organizing principle, is to let go of the randomness OF a career PATH altogether. Let go a career altogether! Let go of the idea! Go in search of another organizing principle!

    What I argue will replace the career as an organizing principle is the LIFE WORK. Here, then, another promissory note…

  2. This is an impressive reply. There is much here to think about. And also so much to thank you for.

    The point you make in your preface is well-taken. It requires some revision on my part. So long as commercialism remains a dominant force, we could construe careerist conceptions in “exoteric terms” and life work conceptions in “esoteric terms.” Exoteric because our everyday conversations will be cluttered with careerist vocabularities. Esoteric because our philosophical and poetic conversations with kindred spirits will unfold, we hope, in life work terms or in other, more meaningful terms.

    A final note: The reason I like “life work” is that it’s an apt double entendre. 1.) We need to make life WORK, i.e., to make a workable life. 2.) We need to MAKE life-work, i.e., life as an ongoing and final work.

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