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Career survival will depend on versatility

Friday 10th March 2000

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The New Careers

The New Careers: Individual action and economic change, by Michael B Arthur, Kerr Inkson and Judith K Pringle. Sage Publications, $54.95.

Reviewed by S V Venkataraman

The modern world is a paradox: there is poverty amid plenty; surging supply against sagging demand; large companies merging to create over-sized monopolies although the need for healthy competition is constantly emphasised; and, most important of all, growing unemployment amid an increasing number of employers and recruiting agents looking for skilled staff.

Gone, too, are the days of Akio Morita, the legend behind the phenomenal success of Japan's Sony Corporation (who was upset when I told him in 1987 I had switched three jobs in my career which had then spanned 18 years), when individuals were wedded to the companies that employed them until "death or retirement do us part."

Confucianism and Shintoism, the basis of Oriental culture emphasising devotion to one's family and organisation, is being replaced by pragmatism, a spirit of adventure and the urge to diversify and experiment with new ventures. These are clearly the days of people who desire to do their own thing. Organisations exist for individuals and not vice-versa, they say.

This is not a utopian concept that postulates entropy. It is an emerging pattern in many countries, including New Zealand, and is the subject of this book.

The authors, two of whom are based at the University of Auckland, argue there are a large number of people who would rather follow their own career path than have it determined by corporate entities or, more succinctly, their employers.

Extensive research and interviews led them to study the pattern of 75 individuals in this country - "career actors" as they are called in the "economic theatre." The authors observe: "Our thesis is that as we build our careers, we are all actors. But we are ceasing to be (as we have been encouraged to think) agents for the powerful institutions which try to write our scripts and direct our actions. The scripts of monotonous work or careful assent through a series of company job descriptions or steady specialisation in a typecast occupation or [for women] relegation to the margin of employment because of discontinuities of service are disappearing."

The modern individual is apparently a liberated soul, willing to give up jobs because "they are boring," as does Catherine (one of the study's subjects). Another, Bruce, turned adversity to advantage by using his overseas work experience in the hotel industry to transform himself from a lukewarm boilermaker to a vibrant sales professional.

Is the new generation so daring as to throw the concept of job security to the winds? Pose this question to Stephen Covey, the US management pundit, and he would say instantly there is no such thing as job security.

"In any particular organisation, the only security is the ability to meet human needs, to solve real problems. Because needs and problems change so rapidly, you must continually upgrade your skills, your knowledge, constant education and training. Self-directed education is absolutely necessary."

While the authors have done well to select a broad spectrum of individuals to represent their model, they could have included two other important categories - those unwilling to choose a career, prefer to be unemployed and let the system look after them; and those who want to pursue a career or change course but cannot find employment.

Recent surveys have placed a large number of immigrants in the second category, many of whom eventually chose their own careers either through self-employment or through partnership with individuals in a similar predicament.

This new breed of "actor" is becoming more pronounced in New Zealand since they feel betrayed by recruiting agencies and potential employers, although they are often acknowledged to be well educated and qualified for the jobs they seek.

The authors have mentioned this, at least by implication. In the concluding part of the book, they say: "...personal survival and growth through careers will increasingly depend on flexibility, versatility, improvisation and persistent learning.

Those in the 'exploration' phase, whether they are exploring a project, a job or the whole world of work, may treat their work encounters as a series of experiments rather than a single pathway."

The New Careers may not change your life or career. But it could set the thinking process in motion and enable you to perceive realities in a new light.

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