The corporatization of careers language

I admit to being fairly new to the field of careers development (I qualified as a careers adviser in 2012) but one of the things that has struck me is the heavy use of corporate language in field of careers development. I wonder if people who have been in the field longer have seen a more noticeable shift over the last 10-15 years. By corporate language I mean terms that come from the world of business. To give a few examples, which I will cover in more detail later, terms like personal branding, USP and networking.

Now this is not just a curiosity but is vital for understanding the direction that careers work is going. The language we use afterall can be seen to determine how we view and understand the world around us. Language is not just how we express something but gives us the terms and categories to understand it in the first place.

To quote the anthropologist Edward Sapir;

“Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of a particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society. The fact of the matter is that their “real world” is to a large extent unconsciously built up in the language habits of the group. . . . We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation.”

Language then sets how we interpret things, it gives us the categories we see the world through. What language we choose actually gives us a set of limitted possibilities by which we might see something. To give a very limited example imagine someone working in a job center with a set of unemployed individuals. The persons view of their work will be coloured differently if they describe the job seekers they work with as “clients” or as “claimants”. Client speaks of a set of obligations that you owe to someone while claimant views someone as a strain on others that needs to have their ways changed. To some extent this will change the interaction that takes place.

Now I am not saying that language is completely deterministic and that if you use the term “claimant” you will inevitably end up treating the people you work with badly. But I am saying language is significant and the language we use is part of a network of factors in our lives.

So from that point let’s explore some examples of the corporatization of language in careers work and what the effect of this might be.

Examples

I want to give a few examples of how corporate language is being increasingly used in careers work before moving on to what the result of this is.

  • Personal Branding – This clearly borrows from the world of marketing, it implies as marketers learn to brand companies or products career developers need to learn to brand themselves to develop new relationships and get hold of jobs. This tends to involve learning to see yourself in terms of simple categories (thinking the 4 Ps of marketing or such like) and then how to communicate these categories to the market. This move ends up creating a world where the individual is reduced to concepts set by the market so they can be sold in effect.
  • Networking – Career development clearly involves some people but I sense a move to see “networking” as the main way you involve others. Networking borrows a lot from commerce in how it operates, especially from sales. Networking works around building contacts, boosting your reputation and later leveraging your position. This commercial approach stands in contrast to other metaphors that could be used for this such as co-operation, friendship, camaraderie and so on. I’m not saying that networking doesn’t involve these just that the metaphor the language creates does not pull in that direction.
  • LMI – LMI feels like a term lifted straight out of boardroom. Firstly it’s a market that is being discussed, again with clearly commercial overtures. Secondly the focus on information/ intelligence moved to a linear actionable view of knowledge that goes down well in a corporate setting but doesn’t always float well in other environments. This doesn’t make it worse I am just saying this is what the language creates.
  • Commercial Awareness – Moving on from LMI when we talk about how someone understands the world of work or how to operate in it we often discuss this. This is despite commerce (the buying and selling of goods for profit) doesn’t neatly fit public or third sector models (though this is probably changing). Again the corporate and the commercial dominates what it is to know. There is an implication that correct knowledge is to do with making a profit above anything else.
  • Client – We’ve touched on this before but the description of the person we work with as a client surfaces ideas of contracts, obligations, customer service but also of them paying the service provider. I find it particularly how this appears to have slipped into HE careers work to some extent alongside the rise of fee and the creation of a market in the HE sector. Again this shows the focus around commerce and especially on monetary value as a key way to understand reality.

Analysis

The importance of language is it provides a set of concepts through which we think about those we deliver our work to, how we encourage them to think about themselves, how they think about the world of work and how they think of other people. We can not avoid this but we can think about what the consequences are to this.

It may feel inevitable and fine that increasingly careers work apes corporate language, after all aren’t both about work? And aren’t corporate realities ones which dominate the world of work itself? But I feel we do not need to accept this and there are a number of drawbacks I want to finish by highlighting.

  • We work for customers. This is the conclusion of the use of client. The problem though with customers are too fold, they are always “right” so we never challenge them the way some other forms of education confront but they are how we achieve profit, so in effect we want something from them more than we want something for them.
  • Work is about profit. A number of the uses of terms above highlight the buy and sell market dynamic. This reduces work to how we achieve financial security and status. Work as meaning anything beyond this is normally consumed into this form of capitalist logic.
  • Work is competitive. When we consider terms like networking as personal branding its hard not to see that careers developers compete against each other. They are not their to support each other or feel a sense of unity and camaraderie with each other. THe drive for profit ultimately divides people.
  • Reality is simple. This competitive world of profit has little place for nuance. Throughout themes themes we see a drive towards reduction and simplicity which ultimately eskews critical thinking and any concept of having multiple perspectives. Reality needs to be made simpler to get a profit out of it.

This is just my first attempt, I’m sure there are other ways to put these ideas across. What I hope to highlight is that the terms we use are not benign but help create the world of careers we are part of.

References

Sapir, E. (1929). The status of linguistics as a science. Language, 207-214.

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3 thoughts on “The corporatization of careers language

  1. The corporatization of careers language conjures up for me a line of Foucauldian analysis that urges us to consider how issues of power often get obscured by language. I suggest that the power of corporations to direct and govern our lives becomes internalized through the careers language of self-management. For example, personal branding is one way to shift the responsibility for finding well-paid, meaningful, sustainable work to individual effort, and away from the social obligation of corporations to create such work. As career professionals, we should reflect, perhaps, on whether or not we are helping corporations shift that burden in their favour by helping our “clients” become more adept at adapting to a risk society characterized by high unemployment and a steady increase in precarious, part-time, and contingent labour.

    • Thanks George that’s both a very helpful and interesting insight. I guess my question is if we are supporting a system that maintains power imbalance and with it injustice and inequality how do we re-imagine our profession?

  2. A loaded question, Tom! I’m not sure we are supporting an unjust system since ‘support’ implies conscious, deliberate, intentional action. I think, as a profession, we get caught up like everyone else in a net of assumptions organized around a grand narrative that operates as “common sense.” For much of the world, The American Dream comes to stand for common sense: this is how life is best lived, i.e. go to a good school to get a high-paying secure job, buy a comfortable home (fill it with stuff) and work so that your kids enjoy a better quality of life. We as a profession help develop and deploy efficient tools for achieving individual autonomy, financial success, and long-term job stability within that narrative. Nothing wrong with that. But, for an increasing number of people, that narrative is broken or no longer makes sense. So, for those clients and some career professionals, there is now an opportunity to imagine something else. Our profession is tied to our society. I suppose, the best place to start is with the end in mind, with foundational ideas: How shall we live? What kind of relationship do we want between work and culture? How should society then be ordered? Like I said, you’ve asked a loaded question (-: but your blog is one of the few in our profession that raises such Qs, so keep up the good work!

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