From ‘Me’ to ‘We’
By George Dutch
A Necessary Shift in Career Service Orientation?
Career development professionals are the mechanics of an employment machine that operates for the mutual interests of individuals, the state and private capital. We help the state ensure a steady supply of labour and, when the machine needs repairs, we apply a range of interventions—training, coaching, counselling, benefit systems, insurances, healthcare—for the temporarily unemployed, disabled, ill or injured.
We use a toolbox of career theories, methods and models to help individuals adjust their skills, behaviours and attitudes so that the machine runs smoothly. For example, when corporations and governments shed jobs by the millions in the early 1990s, we tweaked attitudes with the idea that individuals really work for themselves even when they have a traditional employer . When the economic crash of 2008 cracked the engine block, many career professionals helped clients reconstruct their lives with a narrative or life-design approach that increased their capacity as active, holistic, self-organizing, masters-of-meaning to make trade-offs between career activities and personal preferences, such as work-life balance .
These tools reveal a cultural assumption that self-reliance and personal independence is the best way to manage a career when job security is threatened by economic upheaval. In short, career services are about helping “me” better manage “my life” within a cultural consensus organized around a simple formula: good school, good grades, good job, good life. When career professionals sit across from a client, the central question we ask ourselves is: how can I help this individual access and utilize this formula?
But, there is nothing “natural” about a social order based on this consensus; it’s the consequence of certain social, political and economic choices in a job market always expanding and providing new opportunities through competition and individual effort. For some, the formula still applies and career professionals will continue to help them determine how to best work within these boundaries…but for others, perhaps a majority, the employment machine is beyond repair.
The nature of careers is changing in our society because work as a form of social cohesion is unravelling. The UK government claims that half of university graduates there are unable to find anything other than what would be described as “non-graduate work.” It is estimated that the same situation exists for at least one-third of recent grads in Canada. Robots and intelligent machines threaten to replace workers in industries from finance to retail to transport, with estimates that 47% of jobs in Canada are vulnerable to some level of automation. The number of good-paying jobs with benefits are shrinking and situated for the most part within the public sector. There is a growing divide between a salariat and a precariat .
In the past, dire predictions about the end of work did not happen but many experts say that technological change today is occurring at a faster pace on a wider scale with negative implications for how work is currently organized.
Do career development professionals need a different toolkit?
Society appears to be at a crossroads in terms of how to structure the supply and demand of work, allocate resources and distribute benefits. If a new employment machine is being built, career professionals might spend less time on equipping individuals for “Me Inc” and more time facilitating collective solutions for finding and creating work. For example, instead of teaching clients how to build a LinkedIn profile, should we be showing clients how to band together, develop creative enterprises and seek funding through Kickstarter? Or, educating them not on the job market but on how to engage with others in the sharing economy by teaching how apps can create new income streams? Or, coaching them on how to become activists, how to organize and advocate with others for a Guaranteed Basic Income as the best way to secure their future? Depending on the political and economic choices we make as a society in the next few decades, our focus as career professionals could shift to helping most clients adjust to a new work ethic that is based less on individualism and self-interest and more on interconnectedness and the common good.
Some thought leaders are calling for a structural shift that will measure the success of our economy not by gross domestic product (GDP) but by quality of life for citizens . If steady jobs and professions become the privilege of a few, we need to collectively rethink work in a way that takes care of people and the planet that we depend on, not just produce and consume goods and services (many of which currently contribute to GDP but actually undermine the well-being of both people and planet). A new work ethic might be organized around the social capital necessary to solve big problems ─ such as climate change, income inequality, water shortages, kleptocracy ─ through a collaborative commons involving volunteering, research, innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship.
Through Careering and Cannexus and other “community” forums, career development professionals tend to look with a “hive” mind (networked by social and informational togetherness) for integrated solutions when solving problems. Should we now intentionally and deliberately integrate “We Inc” concepts of collaboration and collectivism into career theories, methods and practices?
We have the unique pleasure and privilege of witnessing how work gives not only meaning but also structure and stability to life. What influence will we have on designing and building an employment machine that works efficiently and effectively for citizens, government and private capital? The stakes are high for our future as individuals, professionals, and as a society.
George Dutch, MA, thinks and writes about the intersection between knowledge, work and power. He collates an online mag, UnDone, that tracks relevant trends & issues. He lives in Ottawa where he has been a career counsellor in private practice with JobJoy.com for 25 years.
 Bridges, W. (1994). JobShift: How To Prosper In A Workplace Without Jobs includes a chapter called ‘Run You & Co. As A Business.’ But it was actually management guru, Tom Peters, who wrote an article in 1997 that coined the phrase “CEO of Me, Inc.” and famously captured this ideology of individualism in the workplace.
 Savickas, M. L., Nota, L., Rossier, J., Dauwalder, J., Duarte, M. E., Guichard, J., et al. (2009). Life designing: A paradigm for career construction in the 21st century. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 75(3), 239-250. Visit www.vocopher.org/resources.htm for more information about life-design and narrative approaches to careers.
 For these and other relevant statistics, visit Working Without a Net: Rethinking Canada’s social policy in the new age of work: mowatcentre.ca/wp-content/uploads/publications/132_working_without_a_net.pdf
 Rutger Bregman (2016). Utopia for Realists: The case for a Universal Basic Income, Open Borders, and a 15-hour workweek; Jeremy Rifkin (2015). The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, the Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of Capitalism; Nick Srnicek (2015). Postcapitalism and A World Without Work.