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Letter No.56
6 March, 1997

The Future of Career
an essential summary
edited by The Jobs Letter

A 'careerquake' is shaking the foundations of what we mean by 'career', according to TONY WATTS, Director of the National Institute for Careers Education and Counselling, in Cambridge, UK. Watts was the leading speaker at the international careers conference held in Wellington 21-23 January 1997. He called for a reconstruction of our view of careers, as new models of work call the old models of careers guidance into question. This is an essential summary of his paper presented to the conference.

    There is widespread recognition that we are in the middle of a major historical transformation to a post-industrial, post-modern information age. There is also a growing awareness that this is likely to imply a profound revolution in the nature and structures of both work and of career.

    This represents a careerquake: a shaking of the foundations of our traditional conceptions, and a need to reconstruct them in new forms, adapted to new contexts.

    The careerquake threatens individuals sense of their identity; it also threatens our social fabric. It could potentially offer new opportunities for more widespread personal fulfilment, but only if we can develop new social forms which will enable us to realise this potential.

  • The careerquake stems chiefly from two linked forces: the impact of new technology, and the globalisation of the economy. As a result of various economic pressures, many organisations have been seeking to be much more flexible in their use of labour resources.

    Many have decentralised decision-making and engaged in "delayering" reducing the layers of management or supervision. In some cases, more fluid forms of organisation are being developed, often based on time-focused, task-driven teams. Rigid job demarcation is rapidly disappearing. Clearly differentiated and discrete roles and the orderly career paths that go with them are increasingly being replaced by team-working and multi-skilling.

  • At the same time, may large organisations have also been engaged in "downsizing": seeking to reduce their number of core workers, and to operate in more flexible ways through a growing contractual periphery.

    This takes two main forms. One is increased "outsourcing" and contracting out to suppliers: as a result more employees are now based in small and medium-sized rather than large organisations, and more individuals are self-employed.

    The other is for employers to seek more flexible working arrangements with their own employees: the proportion of part-time workers has grown massively; so have the number of "teleworkers" working from home, and the numbers of casual workers and workers on short-term contracts.

    The effect of these various trends is a profound change in the "psychological contract" between the individual and the organisation their perceptions of the obligations each has to the other. The traditional contract was a long-term relational one, based on security and reciprocal loyalty: this has largely broken down.

    Now the contract tends increasingly to be a short-term transactional one, based on a narrower and more purely economic exchange. Even where the relational contract survives, it commonly involves exchanging job security for greater task flexibility.

    Security, it is argued, lies not in employment but in employability: accumulating skills and reputation that can be invested in new opportunities as they arise. This leads to the notion that individuals, whether formally self-employed or not, should regard themselves as self-employed, taking responsibility for their own career-long self-development.

    The key to reconciling social equity and upgrading of skills with a flexible labour market is a much broader concept of career, supported by appropriate social institutions and incentives. Instead of being viewed narrowly as a progression up the hierarchy within an organisation, careers should be viewed as the individual's lifelong progression in learning and in work.

  • The breadth of these terms is important. "Learning" embraces not only formal education and training, but also informal forms of learning, in the workplace and elsewhere. "Work" includes not only paid employment and self-employment, but also many of the other forms of socially-valuable work, in households and in the community (including child-rearing and elder-care). "Progression" covers not only vertical but also lateral movement: it is concerned with experience as well as positions, and with broadening as well as advancing.

    We need to reform the welfare state to provide a base of support to more flexible and individually-driven careers, linked to a wider concept of work. The welfare state that emerged following the Second World War was based on a series of assumptions about family, work and the life cycle.

    The family was assumed to combine a full-time stably-employed male wage-earner, with a wife primarily devoted to her work within the home. It was further assumed that their life-cycles were orderly, standardised and predictable, that male employment was assured, and that the welfare state could therefore concentrate on childhood and old age, being largely passive during the active middle part of the life-cycle.

  • All these assumptions are now in question. The strongest proposal, in my view, for supporting a more flexible concept of career is to collapse the present tax and social-benefits systems into a basic citizen's income, received as a right by every individual man, woman and child. This would enable people to make flexible choices about the extent of paid employment in which they engage.

    The concept of unemployment an industrial notion whose time has passed would disappear from the dictionary. With it would go poverty traps and the pressures to squeeze economic activities into the black economy. More flexible patterns of work would be positively encouraged rather than as at present discouraged.

    Both unions and professional associations now need to pay more attention to supporting individual career development within a flexible labour market. This requires greater attention to services to individual members, including offering professional development and career guidance, as well as acting as agents and advocates for individuals in their negotiations with employers.

  • The concern of such organisations should be more with maintaining their members' employability than with seeking to protect them in their existing jobs. Their role should be heightened rather than weakened when their members experience unemployment. Where the collective bargaining role of unions survives, it should include attention to employers' career management practices.

    Some companies are developing a new "psychological contract" in which they seek to offer employees security not by offering a "job for life" but by providing training and development opportunities which will extend their marketable skills and sustain their "career resilience". In general, however, the rhetoric in this respect is running well ahead of the reality. Most employers are in practice unwilling to provide any training that is not strictly related to immediate job needs.

  • An idea that is attracting particular interest in the UK is the concept of individual learning accounts, to which the government, employers and individuals would all contribute. This would overcome the impasse between government, employers and individuals over who should finance training, and would provide a mechanism for recognising the mutuality of interest by sharing costs. In this concept, the learning account can be drawn upon only if both the individual and employer agree; and when the employee moves to a new employer, or becomes unemployed, the account goes with the individual. For the unemployed, the state would need to make good the lack of an employer contribution.

    New models of work are calling the old models of learning into question. Learning no longer precedes work: it is interwoven with work, on a lifelong basis. The pace of technological change also means that the "shelf-life" of work skills and knowledge are getting ever shorter. "Just-in-time" work systems require "just-in-time" learning. More frequent movement between jobs requires regular learning of new competencies. More and more jobs require "multi-skilling": a broader and more flexible range of skills, demanding a wider base of understanding.

  • A concept of lifelong learning transforms the role of schools. Hitherto their models of learning have been dominated by public examinations, linked to their "sorting" function. This has intended to encourage a narrowly instrumental approach to learning, focussed on the "exchange value" of examination certificates rather than the "use value" of the learning itself.

  • Within a lifelong learning system, the key role of the school is to foster young people's motivation and confidence, and to develop their skills for learning how to learn. This requires very different curriculum models, with weaker emphasis on the boundaries between traditional school subjects, more stress on the interaction between theory and practice, and more use of community resources. Experience-based learning in workplaces and other forms of education-business partnership enrich the learning process; they also help young people to engage at an earlier age in the interaction between learning and work which is the essence of lifelong learning.

    Source -- "The Future of Career and of Career Guidance" by A.G. Watts, National Institute for Careers Education and Counselling , Cambridge, UK.

    TONY WATTS is the Author of Careerquake (1996) London:Demos. His recent work has included studies of the application of market principles to guidance delivery and of the educational and vocational guidance systems in the Member States of the European Union. The conference "Career Planning: Signposting the Future" was organised by The Careers Service Rapuara in Wellington 21-23 January 1997.

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