The career in review: Why bother?

Changing Conceptions of Work

This week I’ve been exploring our received understanding of the career. I’ve reflected some on what makes it desirable and on what’s the matter with desiring it.

Philosophical considerations aside, the historical truth is that unemployment rates among young persons living in the developed world are astronomically high. Reporting on the unrest in Spain as some in Catalonia seek self-governance, Paul Mason mentions that the youth employment rate in Spain hovers around 50%. Not long ago, cover art of The New Yorker featured a post-college student who’d moved back in with his parents. The unemployment rate, however high, also hides the fact that most educated young persons are underemployed.

Unemployment and underemployment do not touch upon the larger story, however. An increasing number of 20- and 30-somethings work in ways that bear very little resemblance to the way that work was conceptualized after World War II. They are bricoleurs, cobbling together work and an income from many different sources, individuals, and organizations. As bricoleurs, they cannot hope to have careers. I have been urging: all the better. It is time to ‘decouple’ doing good work from following a career path; becoming financial independent from a career’s promise of financial stability; discovering higher values rather than coveting minor, too-worldly accomplishments.

The Career: A Very Brief History

It’s interesting to track the change in meaning of the notion of the career. Before the 19th C., the word used to refer to a horse’s gallop or the course a horse followed. Later on, a person may have a career but this only meant “following a course in which many interesting incidents happened to him.”

After World War I and with the rise of professionalism (professionalism: then a very new phenomenon, doubtless a newly coined word–see, e.g., Bledstein’s The Culture of Professionalism), things change dramatically; the term career or ‘having a career’ enters our current lexicon. Here’s the OED on career:

A course of professional life or employment, which affords opportunity for progress or advancement in the world. [my emphases]

Unfortunately, many good things–being a well-respected person, doing good work–got crowded out by an increasingly very capitalist world: undertaking professional training, advancing in one’s chosen career, working in an office, generally closing oneself off from philosophical questions, etc. I’d say that the philosophical question, “Who am I? What makes me what I am?,” has been answered in a rather facile, unphilosophical way in the modern world: “Who am I? I am the kind of person who ‘has a [viable] career.'”

Clarifications: A Short Exchange with Dougald Hine

In response to my first post on our obsession with careers, Dougald writes,

First, in a British context (and I suspect this is a cultural/social/political difference), it is quite possible for a farmer to be respectable. Which leads me to think that the reason farming is not a career is because a career (literally) involves going somewhere, pursuing a course, whereas farming is a matter of staying put.

I think what you say about ‘staying put’ is quite good. It reminds me of Wendell Berry’s powerful arguments from the early 1970s and following about the importance of place, of settlerism, of ‘kindly use’ of the land. Of course, this has not been so easy, especially given what you have argued about ‘urban supremism.’ Modernity seems to fantasize about ‘chosen’ migration as opposed to the harsher reality: forced uprooting. In this connection, I think also of Polanyi’s book, The Great Transformation.

Secondly, in relation to (c), the concept of the ‘portfolio career’ has been well-established in the discourse of careers since the 90s. It is usually presented as an aspirational turn, towards a more lifestyle-like career path, rather than being an organisation man or woman. The reality has more to do with the increasing precariousness of a post-Fordist world.

Richard Sennett wrote quite a lot on the decline of the career and the lostness of those without a narrative path through life, during what I think of as his ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ phase. (Don’t it always seem to be that you don’t value the Iron Cage of Modernity until it’s gone?)

Many of my philosophical strategies are yes-saying. What is it about the career that we have found desirable or attractive, and is it necessary to have a career in order to live in accordance with what matters most? How do we decouple a good life from our too-long concern for careerism? We need to have narratives that help us make sense of our lives, but it doesn’t follow, as we both know, that the career holds a monopoly on narrativization. We need to make a decent living, but the career is not the only way to do so and it is becoming increasingly fraught–for reasons I give concerning the fetishization of ‘work-life balance’–to have a ‘good’ career anyway.

I believe the ‘portfolio career’ is a late-stage strategy to keep what is already broken. It ‘decouples’ social recognition from set institutions but smuggles them back in on the backend: the career writer receives accolades from various prestigious institutions, teaches courses at prestigious universities, and so forth. He may be unattached to one institution, but he is most certainly dependent on the regnant social order. I read an article recently in which the professional philosopher Todd May was quoted as saying,

I began studying philosophy, like many of you, because I wanted to answer some big questions that haunted me…. At some point in my graduate school education I began to develop different motivations for my involvement in philosophy…. It’s not that the big questions just went away. Instead, they moved into the background, their urgency replaced by the urgency of more mature philosophical concerns [said with irony]: getting articles accepted for publication, receiving tenure, making an academic name for myself.

(I take it that May, in the quote above, is sitting bestride the organization-based career and the portfolio career.) Once we kick aside ‘portfolio careers,’ they we are left staring in the face the question concerning how to best spend our lives.

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