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.