How to help the “Homo Economicus” in the Career Office
By Taylor Witiw
“What program can I finish in the shortest amount of time, that will give me the highest income when I am done (referred herein as -time/+money)?” This is the question that prospective students bring to my institute most frequently. It is a real question and always honest, but as a career development practitioner I still finding it striking every time I hear it. Something feels off. Experience suggests that focusing on this question primarily is not the most helpful step toward a preferred future. However, it is difficult to articulate what is missing and practitioners also strive to empower clients, or to let them lead. This is what many folks want to discuss in a session, sometimes exclusively. Since the -time/+money question is genuine, it is important that practitioners have an approach for working with it. Equally, it is important that practitioners understand what is off, so they can challenge clients toward growing their consciousness about the worlds they wish to create for themselves and those around them.
Recently in CERIC’s Careering magazine, I wrote about how practitioners can move toward a more contextual approach to working with clients. One of the reasons the time/+money question is problematic is it doesn’t address the specific values, interests, skills and goals of a client, let alone their social contexts. Discussions of income are necessary and inevitable when discussing most life goals, but they are not sufficient. Additionally, there is no clear answer for which post-secondary program or careers lead to the golden -time/+money ratio. Government resources such as alis.alberta.ca and jobbank.gc.ca offer valuable tools to help explore employment statistics, job posting and income data, but career paths are rarely linear. Further, these resources are limited in their ability to express the nuances of specific roles, promotions and the opportunities of happenstance. Finally, the -time/+money question is challenging in its salience because it makes all other questions seem opaque and irrelevant: why?
A growing body of literature argues that clients and prospective students are trained to ask that question (Attick, 2017, Leech, 2012; Matheson & Matheson, 1996; Spring, 2015; Zibechi, 2010). Education systems increasingly undertake the immense task of preparing flexible “human capital” to enter job markets that are all too often unstable. Schools prepare each student to survive the turbulent economy by acting as a “homo economicus,” which frankly is a terrifying way to say an economically rational person. That is precisely what is expressed by the -time/+money question: economically rational clients who want to minimize the investment of time and other resources and maximize their profit. Folks want good value for the time, effort and money they spend, which is reasonable – but not in a way that makes other rationale obsolete. Economic logics, like scientific or other logics, are not sufficient for interpreting and organizing life in a humanizing way for the common good. In parallel, the psychologist Carl Rogers (1955) reminds us that science “is not an impersonal something, but simply a person living subjectively another phase of himself” (p. 278). This is also true of the economy so often mentioned in the news. Allowing one logic to dominate an entire decision-making process to the exclusion of all others is misguided and can be harmful. The question then becomes, how do we refocus career on the person?
There are often opportunities to redirect the -time/+money question in consciousness-raising ways, involving humanizing curiosity and question asking. We may ask the client, “What will that income mean for your life?” as a way of identifying the underlying purposes, values and interests of the client. This also demonstrates that “profit” is not the underlying aim, but a life the client wishes to lead. From there, it is possible to challenge whether -time/+money solutions truly offer the lives most worth living. While not an exhaustive guide, this is a place to begin examining a needful subject in career practice.
Taylor Witiw works as a supervisor for the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology’s Advising and Career Development Service for prospects, students and alumni. He is currently studying in the University of Alberta’s Master’s in Education Policy Program.
Attick, D. (2017). Homo economicus at school: Neoliberal education and teacher as economic being. Educational Studies , 53(1), 37-48.
Leech, G. (2012). Capitalism: A structural genocide. Zed Books.
Matheson , D. & Matheson , C. (1996). Lifelong learning and lifelong education: a critique. Research in Post-Compulsory Education , 1(2) , 219-236 .
Rogers , C. R. (1955). Persons or science? A philosophical question. American Psychologist, 10(7) , 267- 278.
Spring, J. (2014). Globalization of education: An introduction. Routledge.
Zibechi , R. (2010). The complex decolonization of the school. In L.Meyer & B. Alvarado (Eds.). New world of indigenous resistance : Noam Chomsky and voices from North, South, and Central America. City Lights Books (pp.315-330).