The Uncertain Story of Career Development

By Jim Bright, Visiting Professor, International Centre for Guidance Studies

Certainty is something that we seem to strive for in life, so it is odd that we so often bewail that we are bored. Judging by their popularity, we love a good suspense thriller and hate to have it spoiled by someone telling us who did it. With the exception of illegal bookmakers and bent goalkeepers, sports lovers don’t want to know the result in advance. After all, what would be the point? So despite our pursuit of certainty, uncertainty plays an essential and even pleasurable role in life. It turns out that we seek pattern and surprise, change and constancy, order and chaos.

Career Development has traditionally placed great emphasis on certainty. Parson’s "true reasoning" in fitting people to jobs, Holland's trait-based matching people and occupations, Super's career decidedness and career maturity, are prime examples of attempts to gain certainty in career decision-making.

Post-modern and narrative approaches to career development look to achieve the same outcome through devices such as "writing the next chapter". However, even from the early days of formal career development theorising, uncertainty, unplanned or chance events have been acknowledged as has complexity. For instance, Frank Parsons, often held up as a “founding father” of career development, not only had a non-linear career path himself, but explicitly discussed complexity and unplanned events in his seminal book Choosing a Vocation in 1909. However, sadly, while uncertainty under the guise of "accident theory" in the 1950s, chance events or serendipity has rarely been sufficiently acknowledged, explored, and addressed in career development theory and practice.

Traditional and post-modern approaches to career continue largely to be based on two key assumptions about reality: the stability and continuity assumption that past behaviour predicts future behaviour, and the classical scientific Ceteris Paribus assumption that all other things are equal. Developments in the fields of chaos and complexity science over the last 50 years have challenged both of these assumptions.

Many natural phenomena do not fit the linear assumptions of classical science, rather they exhibit non-linearity, meaning that the past behaviour of a system may be nothing like the current behaviour. Non-linearity also means that seemingly small or trivial influences can have profound effects on a system. This challenges the ceteris paribus assumption, because all things are not equal, and chance or trivial events cannot be assumed to cancel each other out. In terms of careers, this points to the fact that luck and unlucky breaks do not even themselves out in an individual’s career. Some people are lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time and, as a result, they enjoy a stellar career. For others, sadly for instance, circumstances contrive to rob them of an opportunity or their health. Research is increasingly showing that these chance events in careers are the norm, not the exception.

Given the complexity of people and their environments, the quest for certainty in careers needs to be complimented with not only an acknowledgement of uncertainty, but with an equal emphasis on helping people to develop strategies to embrace uncertainty, to develop opportunity awareness, to develop resilience in the face of adversity, and to develop skills of planmanship to make, break, alter, suspend, and retry plans.

Jim Bright will be giving his inaugural lecture at the University of Derby on the Wednesday 4 November, where he will expound on some of these themes.