Is Careers Development Fundamentally About Choice?


Is careers development fundamentally about choice? Surely that is self-evident? Most people would see careers professionals as skilled in supporting individuals making choices about their vocational futures. This is echoed by government policy, statutory guidance in the UK from the Department of Education for example states;

“Schools should help every pupil develop high aspirations and consider a broad and ambitious range of careers. Inspiring every pupil through more real-life contacts with the world of work can help them understand where different choices can take them in the future.”

Similarly the UK based Careers Development Institute defines the job of the careers professional as follows;

“Career development professionals provide activities and services which assist individuals or organisations seeking support to affect a wide range of career transitions. These may be associated with life and career stages, including the development of the career ideas of young people. Contexts include educational choices, work experience and internships, labour market entry… returners to the labour market, portfolio working and pre-retirement choices.

Similarly canonical careers theorists such as Anthony Watts and his DOTS framework, Holland’s vocational codes primarily focus on choice.

So for anyone wanting to seriously discuss careers development the place of choice seems like one to get clear on. If it is about choice then understanding the nature of choice is surely the fundamental factor, if it is not the sector has been barking up the wrong tree for a long time. So what might some alternatives be?

Ken Roberts Opportunity Structure theory of careers allocation provides an interesting counterpoint to the dominance of choice. Roberts doing analysis of school leavers in the later 1960s analysed how factors such as class, gender and location were deterministic of careers outcomes. Roberts claimed that personal choice had little place in the study he had made and that careers work should be focussed on adjusting individuals tot eh opportunities available to them rather than encouraging them to make choices which is not possible in the first place. Though we may not want to go as far as Roberts his ideas still highlight an important challenge to choice. Do we believe that the only factors that lead to the success of an individual are ones which are internal to the individual (such as personal values and skills)? Do we think that cultural limits can be moved past if individuals are rational enough or are individuals disadvantaged/ determined by factors outside of themselves and how should this affect our practice?

The Chaos Theory of Careers (CTC) as proposed by Prior and Bright poses a slightly different challenge to the dominance of choice. The CTC argues that careers theory has been dominated by attempts at prediction, choice fundamentally proposes that we can decide what will happen in the future, that our choices can have the consequences we want them to. CTC argues that due to how much the world of work changes, how much we change as individuals and how difficult it is to predict satisfaction on the basis of previous experiences choice and prediction models of careers development are not the most helpful for the individuals we work with. – choice as something that happens up against the coal face not a grand plan approach, opens way for other aspects to come in to play.

Linked ideas of career as construction of meaning and development and implementation of a personal construct (think Super, Savickas) provide a third important challenge. Given these ideas choice can be a limited way of thinking about development as it focuses on stepping into a new domain rather than some of the wider attributes of change. Choice focuses on a big moment when we move from one state to another, development argues for more ongoing general development. Career is about this general sense of development and change, the arc of our lives, the unfolding narrative(s) we live by rather than either being in a fixed state or choosing to move into another fixed state. In this view there is considerably more focus on the unfolding nature of who we are and how we make sense of the world around us and the place of work in our lives. As a careers worker we are involved in supporting an ongoing process which often focuses on personal concepts rather than supporting big moments of change. Choice is clearly part of development but the important thing to see is that development is happening all the time while significant changes only happen on occasion, this significantly changes the nature of the work we do.

To sum up choice obscures fundamental realities of how all individuals have a limit to their possibilities are limited in how well we can ever predict the future and are developing beings making sense. These three factors are fundamental to how we exist and how our careers operate we ignore them out our peril.

In terms of practice there is a fundamental issue of how we are embracing these structures. Often I hear practitioners (and observe in myself) a movement towards new ideas such as chaos/ happenstance or constructivist ideas or them discussing the limits of the clients they work with. But despite this practice still remains around making and implementing choices, this contradiction is resolved by reverting back to a choice/ matching based model and so the effect of the innovation is severely limited.

Maybe I’m wrong? Please comment below. It is my current conviction that three ideas above are in tension with a matching/ choice based model and this model stifles innovation into other areas as a result of this tension when it is not radically re-purposed.


6 thoughts on “Is Careers Development Fundamentally About Choice?

  1. Tom, this is a wonderful question. It is a question that goes to the very existence of the so-called careers profession and to no less than the very existence of oneself as a known, knowable, and knowing entity, let alone a career entity. The binary tragedy of being is that we humans are not given any choice in being brought into the world–whatever world that may be. Yet, each and every day, in every way, humans choose. Some choices are logical, rational (if not rationalised), and organised (as per the traditional models of career). But, we know all to well that choices are not always so neat and the chaos theory of careers articulates the complexity of such ostensible/paradoxical choice. Some may (choose to) argue that this choicelessness is controlled by external structures and cultural strictures; whereas others may (choose to) argue that the unconscious–lessons learned and profoundly forgotten–is what drives the choices that we humans make in every day lives in response the world into which we are thrown. Oh yes, this is indeed a binary: to choose or not to choose, that is the question. Without ever empirically knowing the future as a knowable thing, one must choose to act on what is known and unknown about the world and oneself; one must take a leap of faith (cf. Kierkegaard) into believing in oneself as the ubermensch (cf. Nietzsche), as the master of one’s destiny, all the while not ever knowing the unknowable. Little wonder we cling to the known.

    Yours in existential torment,

  2. Good question. My comment feels slightly off topic, but I hope it has some relevance.

    On a psychological level, I believe choice works with context, sufficient information, freedom to make your own decision, and subsequent recommendation.

    Context for understanding when a change in direction is better than a push to learning new things in the same arena. Sufficient information for confidence that you are not missing too much that would limit a sensible decision. Freedom to make your own decision for a feeling of independence and autonomy. Subsequent recommendation for peer support and reassurance that your decision is somewhat supported.

    Lose one of these aspects and the power of choice is limited. When careers professionals can find themselves in a good place to identify whether or not all aspects are in place, their next steps should be more apparent and relevant.

    • Thanks for commenting. I like your breakdown of the optimal conditions for choosing, I find it interesting how subjective all of these are, focusing on concepts of things being better. sufficient and feelings in general. Makes the career professionals job hard to puzzle through and emphasizes the feeling of stress and powerlessness people accessing careers work often have.

  3. I don’t think the theoretical perspectives you talk about are incompatible with the concept of choice, or perhaps ‘choosing’, but they might have different ideas of what constitutes choosing.

    In matching theories, a choice is a strategic event which relies on marshalling relevant information and is followed by implementation.

    In structuralist theories, the choice is whether to go along with the options that are most readily available to you or to risk failure and losing contact with your cultural background in order to strive for something different.

    In happenstance theories, choosing (like planning) is an on-going, adaptive activity in response to a changing and unpredictable environment.

    The art of a good careers consultant is to help the client identify what type of choosing will be most helpful to them in that moment.

    • Hi David, thanks for commenting as ever. Yea on reflection I’m not sure things came across the way I wanted them to, I agree that the perspectives imagine choice differently rather than excluding it. I feel that choice can dominate too much in our conceptual framework but I probably didn’t take the right approach above. Maybe one for a update in the new year…

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