Metaphors of Career 2: Inheritance (part 1)

As I write this we’re in the thick of the Olympics and the press is full of superlatives. Ussain Bolt is the greatest sprinter ever. Ben Ainsley the greatest Olympic sailor. And Michael Phelps is the greatest Olympian full stop. But how do you think their children would get on at their parents disciplines? What if we fast forward twenty years and just pick children of the class of 2012 to compete in the 2032 Olympics? You’d be surprised if Phelps’ children were bad at swimming but would you assume they were gold medal standard? Wouldn’t it also be unfair on others just to put them on the team because of their dad? And what about Phelps’ children themselves? Would choosing their career like this be in their best interest?

This blog is looking at inheritance as a metaphor for career. How does our career relate to our parents’ careers? What about our career is past on by our parents? Or do we receive it from other family members? Our friends? The schools we went to? The area we grew up in? From our race? Our gender? Our class? And how do we feel about this? As with the rest of this series the aim of this blog isn’t to argue for the importance of inheritance for understanding career but instead asking what does this perspectives expose and how can it be helpful?

How does Inheritance Happen?

Before we ask how we feel about this idea of inheritance it’s worth asking how inheritance might actually happen?

On one level their are various abilities and traits that are inherited genetically. From physical attributes to psychological temperaments we gain what we are from our parents. This said genes aren’t everything. Partly I’m expanding inheritance here to cover more than just how we interact with our biological parents and partly the career we end up in is more complicated that what natural abilities we start with. There are two other perspectives on inheritance. Firstly that inheritance works through sociological factors, how the external world acts on and effects us. Secondly that it happens through psychological factors. This looks at how we learn and become who were and act differently ourselves because of what situations we are exposed to. In the sociological we’re passive, in psychological we’re active. This blog is going to deal with sociological factors, while the follow up will look at the psychological factors.

We are born into a race, a class, a place, a gender and so on. These factors effect our chances in life. Currently in the UK unemployment stands at around 8.1% (, we live in a culture where people are loosing their jobs but it is thought that women are loosing their jobs at “a disproportionately greater rate than men” ( . In the UK youth unemployment is at a high of around 20% but if you are a young black man it rises to over 50% ( It also appears where you live in the UK matters, live in the South East unemployment stands at 6.3% but if you live in the North East it stands at 11.6% ( shows that social factors like gender, age, race and location effect our careers maybe more than we would like. Take the CEOs of FTSE100 companies, five are currently women ( and when Tidjane Thiam of Prudential took over in 2009 he became the first black CEO of a FTSE100 company. Whatever explanation you give their appears to be a relationship between these social factor and the world of work. It is not simply the case that work is merited on the basis of out abilities and experiences, social factors that we may not think are significant get in the way.

What to do?

As I’ve talked about before the aim of this series is to use metaphors to expose various different perspectives on career. So what might the value be of looking at career this way? The sociologist Ken Roberts in his opportunity structure theory argues that sociological factors pre-determine occupational choice. Roberts in effect sees our environments dictating to us the opportunities we have. Where we live, the qualifications we have, the state of the economy, our family background, our gender etc. all come together to in effect remove choice from us. For Roberts the focus is on being realistic about the hand society has dealt us and to come to accept it for ourselves.

But there is a alternative to this approach. If social factors try and take choice away from us to in effect try and wrestle it back. We all know stories of people who overcome their backgrounds, other people’s biases and economic conditions to make a different future for themselves. Steve Jobs was a college drop out who became a billionaire businessman, Karren Brady as a 23 year old became the director of a Premier League football club in what was supposedly a man’s world and Barack Obama became the first black President of the United States of America. Social structures change and people can make different stories for themselves from the same starting points.

We also need to ask another important question. If I am a white male is what is true of white males in general true of me? How does my specific life connect to the general picture? To get at this we need to be ask what causes the general picture and are these factors present in my life? Take high graduate unemployment. Has this been caused by their being less jobs? By graduates not having the skills employers want? By graduates being badly prepared to hunt for and find work? And if as a recent graduate I’m struggling to find work which of these reasons are effecting me? Or take the high unemployment rate of young black men. Is this because as a group they are badly educated? Demotivated? That employers are biased against them? That they tend to live in areas of high unemployment? And for an individual young black man seeking work which of these factors actually effect them?

Getting behind the headlines to the factors that cause them begins to help us decide what to do about them. It’s hard to know what to do with the fact that their aren’t many woman working at the top of a particularly profession. If you can isolate factors such as maternity leave creating breaks in a career and slowing down progress or unfair bias against woman being “soft” then this begins to create the possibility to do something about what is going on. When people just live at the headline level it’s easy to be demotivated and to feel victimised but if we can dig in and find out what is really going on it’s easier to start thinking about what we can do.

This is partly my critique of Roberts, he isn’t rigorous enough in his analysis. His work revolved around comparing young working men from manual and white-collar jobs and how pre-determined their lives where. This is just a headline. If young men from a particular background all followed a similar pattern in their lives then why was that and what could they have done to change that? I think Roberts has a point to some extent. We can’t change everything and we can’t overcome everything, sometimes the right response is to move towards a more realistic career but this has to be supported by accurate evidence and careful analysis.


For me writing this piece has really highlighted two skills that I think people need as they approach careers and that careers workers need to provide. Firstly we need to be able to understand what exact factors are effecting our lives and how. I’m convinced that it is naive to ignore social factors but we need to work out how they are effecting us. We need to be researchers in our own lives, understanding our own social maps and what the things are that constrain us and why. As a careers worker I need to help people understand the complex nature of how their social context is effecting them rather than just spoon feeding stereotypes. The other skill that is needed is to show how we can overcome these barriers, how do we overcome these barriers and when do we just be realistic and adjust our expectations? This is all about researching, analysing, action planning, implementing and reflecting.

I said last time I wanted to produce an exercise off the back of these blogs. Here’s a case study to work through. Firstly why are there so few black people running FTSE 100 companies? How would you research this question to get passed stereotypes to provide accurate data? If you were a careers advisor working with a young black undergrad with a business degree and desire to become an executive director how would you help them understand the challenges they might personally face and how would you equip them to overcome them?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s