On our obsession with careers and career changes: A reconsideration

Bafflement

I’ve been observing that the term “second career” is gaining in popularity and I’ve been baffled by this. Only yesterday, someone considering becoming a yoga instructor pointed me to an article she’d read on why yoga may be a good “second career.” To confirm the upward tick in usage, I entered the term into Google Ngram Viewer and noted that “second career” began being employed more widely around the late 90s and has continued apace ever since.

When I wrote about moving away from New York City in the future, a man I didn’t know congratulated me on my “planned career change.” More bafflement. Why would the idea of a “second career,” let alone that of a first, have any appeal to anyone living today?

Perhaps it’s time to reflect. A year ago, I wrote an article on the end of the career in which I argued

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.

My concern today is rather modest. It is to offer a definition of the career that might be broad enough to include most (but not all) of the cases in which people speak of a career or of ‘having a career.’

The first reason I’m intrigued by the concept of a career is that it invokes many distinctions–skilled vs. unskilled, non-career job vs. career, blue collar vs. white collar, unstable vs. stable, low paying vs. high paying, manufacturing vs. service and IT, etc.–that seem to be breaking down. The other reason I’m intrigued by talk of ‘having a career’ or of ‘changing a career’ is that it seems to preclude the emergence of philosophical questions. Let’s say that it is one particularly good strategy for refusing to bring one’s life into question.

Throughout the week, I’ll then try to say some things about why the career is a false start for doing good work.

Definition

A career is a (a) decent, (b) respectable way of making a living that (c) is realized over time, that (d) tends to require some formal training, and that (e) tends to take place in an office setting.

Analysis

(a) Someone with a career expects to make a decent living. The idea behind a career is that I am well-paid (where being “well-paid” falls into a certain range). The migrant apple picker and the high school student working in retail, then, do not have careers; both of them have jobs.

(b) Respectability (about which more in future) seems to be the crux of the definition. A farmer could, in principle, make a decent  living but, notwithstanding the Back to the Land apologists, is not seen as being respectable. To be respectable, the career must be valuable by one’s peers, by individuals one knows and by strangers one may not know. John can say that he is a lawyer working at a high-powered law firm and be respected by most people throughout the developed world.

(c) There is continuity to a career. One cannot be tending a garden on Monday, filing reports on Tuesday, raising children on Wednesday, etc., and still say he has a career. A general handyman, however good he may be, does not have a career. This sense of continuity through time allows us to distinguish between part-time jobs and one-off projects and long-term work doing the same kind of thing.

(d) The distinction between formal training and other forms of training (e.g., apprenticeships, on-the-job training, etc.) holds in many but not all cases. Typically, one must pass through college and earn a degree in order to be licensed to practice law or medicine or be an accountant. A plumber has not received formal training, and it is not clear that a plumber, despite the fact that he may make a very decent, stable living, is warranted in saying that he ‘has a career.’

(e) Most people with careers work in offices. They do not work in fields or factories or out of their homes (cf. cottage industry).

Even if (a) through (e) are conjointly sufficient conditions for something’s counting as being a career, it’s still not clear how a yoga instructor or a writer can have a first career, not to mention a second one–unless conditions (d) and (e) are not necessary. That could be. Perhaps the thought is that yoga instructors and writers can make decent, respectable livings over time–but then why don’t plumbers and farmers have careers? Ah, it must be that plumbers and farmers are not respectable. Something more seems to be going on here…

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