Why a career has to founder: Hegel’s causality of fate

I’d like to tease out what is desirable about careers–that they are well-paid work, that they carry a sense of continuity, and that they are regarded as respectable–but first I’d like to consider how the conception of the career founders, leading many into strife. I’m keen to tell the story.

In order to have a career, one must commit oneself to undertaking formal training in a particular field or discipline. This decision comes early, is often expensive and time-consuming (my Ph.D. took about 7.5 years to finish), and has as its consequence that of locking one into a certain ‘career path.’

Supposing that the formal education goes well, then one must commit oneself further to career progression. Where one is is not so important as where one would like to be–to wit, higher up. It is at this point, somewhere over the course of 10 years, that careers can ‘stall,’ ‘get off track,’ or, in any case, not go according to plan. How our lives are ‘supposed to go’ is not how they are actually going.

At the same time that one is hoping to make progress in one’s career, one is also looking to start a family. Now we are counseled to seek work/life balance. The work, being onerous by its very nature, is done for the sake of raising a family yet gets in the way of raising one. The duties accruing to each parent are so pressing that it gets in the way of working all the time. To find ‘balance,’ one must work more in one’s career (on the grounds that one will make more money) but also must pay out more for alienated helpers: nannies, babysitters, dry cleaners, daycare, and so on. When one is at home, one is thinking of work; while at work, one is thinking of home.

It will then seem of the first importance to begin thinking of finding a second career or of career change in order to alleviate the pressures in the above framework. But a second or third career will, it turns out, present many of the same conceptual problems that are already built into the very concept of a career.

The case I am making is that career counseling is a red herring and this is because ‘having a career’ is a non-starter. My approach owes a great deal to Hegel’s ‘causality of fate’ doctrine, the thesis being a certain conceptual framework contains within itself a certain fatedness about the shape of one’s path, one’s future. The career as an organizing conception contains the seeds of strife. Then it appears that the desire for work-life balance is a late-stage fantasy arising out of a structure that is, as I say, fundamentally, constitutively unworkable.

Later on this week, I may consider one obvious fact: this being that, when you analyze how 20- and 30-somethings work today–that is to say, the kind of work they are really doing and the ways in which they actually work–few people can be said to have careers anyway. Aspiring to have them will lead to strife.

2 thoughts on “Why a career has to founder: Hegel’s causality of fate

  1. I have a theory about one of the sources of the “second career” phenomenon. This relates to an adaptation found at the higher level of the “new” careers, by which I mean the highly-remunerated roles in financial industries that have few equivalents in the US or UK economies before the 1980s.

    A recognisable pattern, at least in the UK, is for recent graduates of elite schools to go into these jobs with a clear intention of maximising their earnings for somewhere between three and ten years, before making an exit (either planned or due to the twists and turns of the economy) and using a surplus built up in that time to start what would best be described as a “lifestyle career”. This might involve setting up a specialist coffee shop, a small organic produce business or establishing oneself as a craft maker.

    While such second careers may be entrepreneurial (a model of success is the Innocent drinks company), they are often framed in terms of “quality of life” rather than maximising economic rewards. However, they are made possible by the financial cushion created during the first career.

    Another variant on the lifestyle career is the person who leaves a highly-remunerated role to create a social enterprise or otherwise “give back” to society.

    (This also relates to the phenomenon I refer to in the conversation with Sajay Samuel in Dark Mountain (Issue 3): that the winners of the great economic game whose consequence is the destruction of the conditions of subsistence then proceed to reenact the circumstances of vernacular existence – small-scale production, meaningful activity – only now as a privileged domain, rather than the norm.)

    It would be interesting to know what proportion of those entering the new careers with the intention of cashing out and starting a second “lifestyle” career actually achieve this goal. But I came across enough examples in London to say it’s a recognisable phenomenon.

    Anyway, if there is an elite for whom the second career is a real (though privileged) phenomenon, might this explain why a more illusory version of the idea is permeating the dreams of those see themselves as their social and/or academic peers, but do not have comparable resources?

    1. It’s a good theory, Dougald. I can also think of the shift from (more broadly) the professional 1st career to the ‘lifestyle’ 2nd career. It could be called the Gweneth Paltrow Theory. (See her Goop blog: http://goop.com/about/whats-goop). More cloying still is Gretchen Rubin, whose first career was in law and second in a ‘happiness lifestyle’ (http://happiness-project.com/about/). I also came across Food52.com the other day, a website written by successful journalists who then turned their attention to food.

      More anecdotal evidence: I certainly do hear very successful people fetishizing Simple Living. They want rustic settings but without the work, farms without farming, gardens without gardening, etc. I take it to be a fantasy of a democratic age’s re-imagining of a landed aristocratic age: the manor home, the little aristocrat, the life spent in boring leisure… (Where’s the Jane Austen of our time, the writer who’d make fun of this?)

      More anecdotal evidence still: the 2nd career in social enterprise. This phenomenon, however, can be ‘expedited’ if the person, of a leftist disposition surely, was born into wealth. Then he might go straightaway into social business.

      So, by my reckoning we’ve got 2nd careers in lifestyle (which may not be the same as Simple Living), Simple Living (re-enacting the vernacular, albeit in a neutured and tamed form), and social business.


      One counterpoint (?) would be the cult of formal re-training. John, let’s say, has worked in one industry for 10 years (say, graphic design), that industry implodes, and John thinks it’s necessary to go back to the university in order to retrain (say) in nursing or get an MA in something higher or other. In the US, there’s been–since the time of Reagan–quite a knee-jerk reaction to a professional’s unemployment, the solution always being more *formal* education.

      The solution to professionalization? More professionalization!


      I’ve been thinking further about what people find desirable in careers. Briefly, I think it is, above all, the desire for respectability and a sense of continuity. Continuity, especially, within a complex, indeterminate world. Consider only the claim of continuity: I read about Chipper Jones’ 19-year baseball career coming to an end a few days ago. What’s remarkable is that people lose sight of this being an *anomaly*. Most baseball players, like most workers, won’t be in the same industry for 19 years. A migrant apple picker, stationed in Washington State but coming from Mexico, may be lucky to spend his time on a farm for a season… (Grapes of Wrath anyone?)

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