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The Concept of the Career in Today’s Complex Work Environment

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November is career development month in the United States. What does it mean to have a career in today’s world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity?

The word career has an interesting etymology from the Latin “carrus.” These were wheeled carts that were pulled along the network of Roman roads that made up the “cursus” (meaning postal network).

Hence, etymologically, it refers to something that propels you forward, along a networked path.

It is unlikely that the concept of a “career” was very developed before the 19th century since, up until the Industrial Revolution, work tended to be less clearly defined as it would become in the 20th Century with pension schemes, career advisers, and career pathways. The heyday of economic growth from the 1950s to the 1990s saw the concept of the career as something stable and predictable develop into a middle-class household norm. With this came aspirations to secure a good career by attending university and finishing with degrees that would make one eligible for a world of work that often saw people remaining in the same institutions and professions for their entire working lives.

As the insightful theorist Michael Apple has pointed out in his critical theory, many of the skills and types of knowledge developed in traditional schooling mirror the Post-WW2 work environment: the timetable is much like a traditional working day with a 9-5 structure and a break for lunch; knowledge is structured in siloed subjects, much the way the division of labour has characterised the modern workplace and students are taught to respect a series of norms and behavioural expectations that are those of the workplace (compliance to deadlines and time-framed evaluations).

Today, while there are employers who still view their employees’ activity as a sort of timetabled old-fashioned school day with people literally clocking in and out, these practices are becoming a thing of the past as people have started to work from home because of Coronavirus and, more fundamentally, have come to see the workplace as somewhere where projects are completed, not where time is filled.

What sort of careers does Generation Z face tomorrow? It is now well established that up to 65% of the future jobs that current primary students will go into are yet to be created. It is also increasingly clear that the factory model of education, which is still very much in force, is outdated in many ways, mainly because it does not clearly develop the competencies necessary for human flourishing in the 21st Century and fails to develop student strengths that are often developed outside of the classroom.

In fact, some say that what we should be focussing on is not building a career, but being professional, in other words, focussing less on slotting into a job that will not change, but constantly upskilling ourselves in competencies that will transfer from one scenario and job to the next. This malleability will be more and more important as the workplace becomes less predictable.

Online courses such as those offered by the University of the People, allowing anyone to study anywhere, at any time, are part of this forward-looking approach to preparing for the future. Being able to upskill yourself no matter where you are is a sign of flexibility, persistence and grit that speaks volumes about your character, probably more than the amount of time spent in one place building a “career”. Today we all need to keep learning, all the time.

For all of us involved in education, let us ensure that our students are empowered with the the right skill-set and professional habits that will take the “carrus” of who they are down any path, even those we cannot see yet.