The other week I got an email from a management magazine that asked an irritating question: Where are you in your career?
I couldn’t put my finger on what was annoying about it at first. The sender was only trying to flog another bit of advice on managing a career and I have seen plenty of that before.
Eventually it dawned that I had three answers to the question and all were dispiriting. For a start, I am closer to the end of my career than the beginning of it. Worse, if I had to say where I am in it, I am not entirely sure.
I am very lucky to have an enviable job I enjoy. But I never take it for granted in a media industry that lost an estimated 7,800 jobs in North America alone last year. I also live in London where last week’s news that HSBC would axe 35,000 jobs in one of the deepest restructurings in its 155-year history means European banks have set out plans to cut almost 100,000 jobs since the start of last year.
This explains the main reason that question needled me: too much career advice still assumes it is possible to control working lives in an age of remorseless downsizing and gig economics. In an odd sense, the history of the word “career” almost predicted this. The idea of a career is so entrenched it is hard to remember it is a relatively recent concept. When the word appeared in English in the 16th century it meant gallop or race, as in careering about.
It was not until the 19th century that it began to be widely used to mean progress in some sort of vocation. That century ushered in large employers, such as railway companies, that needed a knowledgeable and stable workforce, says sociology professor Tim Strangleman.
Employees were therefore lured with the promise of a decent pension and steady promotions in a job for life, all distant memories for the workers Mr Strangleman interviewed for his latest book, Voices of Guinness.
It charts the fate of workers whose jobs disappeared with the 2005 closure of a Guinness brewery in west London and one man’s story in particular stands out today.
He had two sons, both of whom studied engineering. The younger son was a worry: he kept getting jobs then quitting after 18 months to go travelling. The older son followed his father’s safer path and went for a career with Nestlé, the big Swiss food and drinks group.
But just as Guinness pulled the plug on the father’s job, Nestlé made the son redundant — after 11 years at the company. The experience left the father rethinking the idea of getting “stuck in the groove” of corporate commitment. Yet he still worried that his itchy-footed younger son should try to stick at jobs for longer.
In other words, the urge to stay committed to a company remains powerful, despite the evidence that the reward is likely to be redundancy, or a lot more “careering about”.
That may be one explanation for our endless interest in career advice.
The other is the entirely understandable fact that the more chaotic the career landscape, the more we seek help to navigate it. That applies to all sorts of jobs today. Last week British university lecturers went on strike for the second time in two months over pay, pensions and the rise of short-term teaching contracts.
Still, university is the one place where thinking about a career still makes sense. Studies show that two and a half years after graduating, students with clearer career plans are more likely to be employed or doing further study, as opposed to standing in a jobcentre.
Ultimately, I suspect the answer to career uncertainty is to do what people have always done: try to be paid to do something you like and then just muddle along.
Also, read books like the recently published memoir, Motherwell, by the late journalist Deborah Orr. It includes a horribly familiar discussion with the sort of career adviser I remember well from the 1970s.
“Well,” said the adviser, glancing at Orr’s impressive exam grades, “with these results you could do anything. Nursing or teaching.”
It may not be much comfort, but for a lot of us it is still true that things used to be far, far worse.