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.

Todd May on the meaningfulness of lives

In his New York Times The Stone blog “On the Meaningfulness of Lives,” Todd May seeks to rescue the concept of meaning from Sartre’s pronouncement that in a godless universe the concept is unintelligible. A worthy endeavor.

Here’s how the argument goes.

1. Distinctions. Meaningfulness is not morality (good or bad, good or evil). Meaningfulness is not happiness (feeling good).

2. Valuations. Meaning is something that is valued (objective) and something that I value (subjective).

3. Narrative Condition. A meaningful life is one that follows a narrative trajectory. It is a life “intensely” lived.

The first two claims are unobjectionable; the third is where things start to get dicey–and fast.

The Problem of Subjectivism: “If God does not exist, then everything is permitted.”

It is at this point that theologians have traditionally appealed to God, the transcendent, an objective dimension because they worry that “if God does not exist, then everything is permitted.” In other words, they see that they must provide an alternative is subjectivism.

Subjectivism means that I do not have access to anything outside the circle of consciousness (call it epistemic subjectivism), or it means that I have no access to value outside that to which I ascribe to objects (call it valuational subjectivism). The trouble with subjectivism, epistemic, valuational, or otherwise, is that it cannot avoid the charge of arbitrariness. I may lead this life because I value it, but should I value it? Do I have good reasons for valuing it? Just because it “feels good” or “seems attractive” or “suits me” will not remove the objection that I have no standard by which to determine whether or not I should be leading this life (as opposed to some other). Hence, I cannot be reasonably certain that I am making much of my life.

And how does Todd May respond to the problem of subjectivism? Well, not so good so far. Suppose, as May thinks, that my life actually does follow a narrative trajectory. How might this, on its own, solve the problem? Nick voices the objection quite well:

You need to say how “narrative values” map on to or allow us to access objective values. Switching to talk of “intensity” totally muddles the issue. If this is the best we can make of an objectively meaningful life, then I think we have no choice but to fall back on some kind of subjectivism. Hand-waving at “intense” “narrative” values does nothing to solve the problem of what objective limits we can reasonably place on a person’s subjectively meaningful pursuits (Comment 8 at The Stone).

May could appeal to some (objectively) shared understanding of literary genres but if so, which in particular? Is a tragic life objectively meaningful, or must it be epic? Comic? In the article, he is mum.