By Barbara A. Smith

Over the past 40 years, there has been a dramatic increase in global connections within technological, economic and cultural spheres, which have in turn affected the production, trade and finance that shape the world of work. Looking closer, globalization is characterized by: the emergence of a single global market for credit and money; growth of strategic international cities where services infrastructure of the global economy is located; establishment of enforceable regional and global trade and a push towards financial deregulation and liberalization that restrict the flexibility of domestic economic, environmental and social policies; development of global bureaucracies and emergence of new political entities; and compression of time and space as a result of technologic developments (Spiegel et al., 2004; Huynen et al., 2005).

The complexity, rapidity and scale of these changes bring new career opportunities but also produce ambiguity, unpredictability, instability and uncertainty. The results, for clients and for career practitioners, are: greater competition and pressure for productivity; greater emphasis on technological knowledge and skills with an increased demand for skilled workers; demand for continuous learning and ongoing innovation; increased number of tasks and greater work/life complexity; fewer opportunities for upward mobility and a shift towards lateral movement; organizational change driven by mergers, joint ventures and work alliances; more use of temporary or contract positions; more opportunities for work in different parts of the world resulting in global labour migration, increased racial, ethnic, cultural and gender diversity in the workplace; increased emphasis on interpersonal competencies including communication, teamwork and networking; greater need to consider entrepreneurship and self-employment, and ultimately, less defined and predictable career paths within organizations and in searching for employment (Amundson, 2005; 2006)

Consequently, career development in the globalization era is distinct from the old paradigm of finding a job with one company and remaining for one’s career. We have seen a shift from “lifetime employability” to the need for individuals to become “lifetime employable” (Friedman, 2005, p. 284). With this need is an increased pressure to constantly and creatively reinvent oneself and to adapt to maintain employment and develop one’s career. Under these circumstances “current career development theories and techniques face a crisis in that their fundamental assumption of predictability based on stability and stages is debatable and, more importantly, may no longer be functional” (Savickas et al., 2009, p. 240).

Gellat’s (1989) work on positive uncertainty and decision-making seems more relevant than ever in the seemingly unpredictable globalization era. Gellat sees decision making as a three-stage process: acquiring information, processing information by arranging and rearranging it, and deciding and acting. There is more information than ever before in the globalization era, particularly due to technology. Processing the information can be challenging, and making decisions and taking action can be difficult given the pressures clients often feel to make the “right” decision. However, Gellat and Gellat (2003) see positive uncertainty as creative approach to decision making, offering a perspective where people acknowledge and embrace the uncertainty of outcomes because of the unpredictability of the future. While acknowledging the paradoxical nature of the concept, they state the purpose of positive uncertainty is to increase awareness of possibilities since most people often focus on what is probable or preferable.

Given globalization’s impact on career development, it seems like encouraging positive uncertainty in clients may be one of the main tasks, if not the main task, of career practitioners given the ubiquity of clients’ uncertainties. With increased instability in careers coupled with even more demands on workers, it is an important concept because being positive about uncertainty increases possibilities and therefore can generate opportunities for proactive, creative career development. Gellat and Gellat argue that when the future is certain, all one can do is prepare, but when the future is uncertain, one has the opportunity to be a part of creating it, rather than just preparing for it. Positive uncertainty can play an important role in empowering clients as they grow in their careers.

To embrace positive uncertainty as part of career development, certain paradoxical attitudes and skills must be fostered, including being focused and flexible about what one wants, aware and wary of information, realistic and optimistic, and practical and “magical” about what one does. As career practitioners we want to recognize and promote these attitudes and skills, as well as look for opportunities to encourage clients to develop them. In a rapidly changing, complex, unstable world it is desirable to both see and create as many career options as possible, and these attitudes and skills seem essential in promoting career growth. Helping clients not just develop a tolerance for uncertainty, but to see it as opportunities for them to create the careers they want.


Barbara A. Smith, BA, MEd, MA is a counselling psychology PhD student at the University of British Columbia, currently working with clients with mental health and career development concerns. She will be presenting at Cannexus13 on globalization’s impact on career development and how career practitioners can use career theories to work with clients more effectively.


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Gelatt, H., & Gelatt, C. (2003). Creative decision making using positive uncertainty. Crisp Learning.

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Savickas, M. L., Nota, L., Rossier, J., Dauwalder, J. P., Duarte, M. E., Guichard, J., Soresi, S., Van Esbroeck, R., & van Vianen, A. E. (2009). Life designing: A paradigm for career construction in the 21st century. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 75(3), 239-250.

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