The End of the Career: A Long View

September 27th, 201112:50 pm @



I argue that we may be witnessing not the stopping and stalling of some careers but the more far-reaching conclusion that the very ideaA�ofA�aA�careerA�may be coming to anA�end. In what follows, I tease out the social implications of the end of the career and then provide someA� where to buy cialis singapore prima facieA�evidence in support of this speculative thesis courtesy of Google Ngram Viewer.


In aA�New York TimesA�article evocatively entitled a�?Generation Limboa�? (August 31, 2011), Jennifer Lee reports that post-graduates are a�?stuck in neutral,a�? 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 senseA�ofA�injustice. Many are now placing greater emphasis on networking and hustling as they mull over the ideaA�ofA�pursuing advanced degrees in their respective or adjacent fields. None seemed to think that the crisis might go any farther than thisa��that it might signal theA�endA�ofA�the very ideaA�ofA�theA�career.

Perhaps what we are witnessing, though, is not the speeding upA�ofA�careerA�change during a precarious economic period or the slowing downofA�careerA�advancement but a Gestalt shift in the very nature and shapeA�ofA�work life. The prevalenceA�ofA�underemployment, outsourcing, downsizing, freelancing, interning, consulting, and volunteering may, together, be a qualitative indicator that theA�careerA�as an organizing principle is coming to anA�end. How can this be?

Our current understandingA�ofA�theA�careerA�first came into being with the riseA�ofA�commercial society.A�Before the eighteenth century, you wouldna��t have heardA�ofA�a priest having aA�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 emergenceA�ofA�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 professionsA�ofA�the ancient regime, theA�careerA�was an egalitarian category for a newly democratic age: an occupation freely chosen and entirely self-directed. Behind the powerA�ofA�industrial development was the aspirationA�ofupward mobility. Heading to the city was a heroic (and at times a tragic) journey whose aim was to rise above onea��s station and achieve financial prosperity. The epitomeA�ofA�individuality, freedom, and success, theA�careerA�thus came to be a substitute for lost familial and communal ties as well as a secular narrativeA�ofA�a well-led life. By the 1830s, it had become common sense. So George Eliot: his estate tied up,A�a�?Harold must go and make aA�careerA�for himself.a�?

Then feminism and civil rights came along and made it possible, at least in principle, for everyone to have aA�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 kindA�ofA�organization. Third, you had to stay long enough in your selected field. Fourth, there had to be a clearly laid-out courseA�ofA�progress or pathA�ofA�advancement. Fifth, there needed to be readily identifiable pinnaclesA�ofA�success. AA�career, accordingly, was a structureA�ofA�meaning, a narrativeA�ofA�self-development without reference to God, nation, or family.

What today has led to theA�endA�ofA�theA�careerA�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 a�?thinning out,a�? breaking up projects and transferring out work, and a�?hollowing out,a�? transforming themselves from a bureaucratic hierarchy into a horizontal network. Meanwhile, the free market, pushed to its logical extreme, has created a permanent conditionA�ofA�free agency. As organizations undergo structural changes and workers become hustlers, the ideaA�ofA�incremental progress cannot retain its sense. Amid talkA�ofA�excessive executive pay and praise for sexy start-ups and young entrepreneurs, amid social anxietiesA�ofA�a�?treading watera�? or a�?going in circles,a�? 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 menA�ofA�virtue called to act nobly, striving for higher things. For a time, there were farmers living according to the diurnal turnsA�ofA�the sun and the felt rhythmsA�ofA�the seasons. They are gone, mostly, but they remind us that a life that can go otherwise.

If a social order into which an idealA�ofA�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.A�

Social Implications

If, as I argue, we are witnessing theA�endA�ofA�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 vocabularyA�lag behindA�social reality as people continue to think in termsA�ofA�careers,A�careerA�placement, careerA�counseling,A�careerA�advancement,A�careerA�change… and become frustrated with the shape and directionA�ofA�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.A�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 conceptA�ofA�theA�careerA�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 ofA�professionalization, the clarion callA�ofA�educational retraining, and the tropeA�ofA�upward mobility.

Prima Facie**A�Evidence

1. ‘Career,’ 1500-2008. As we would expect, theA� works like viagra. first graphA�shows that “career” appears more and more frequently during the rise of industrial capitalism, 1800-2000.

2.A�‘Career’ and ‘Profession,’ 1500-2008. Notice how theA�second graphA�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,A�The Culture of Professionalism best ed drug when drinking. .)

3.A�‘Career Advancement,’ 1500-2008. From 1950-2000, we seeA�an explosionA�in the usage of ‘career advancement.’ After 2000, we see a sharp decline.

**Note:A�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.