Managing Careers into the 21st Century


John Arnold

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  • Human Resource Management Series: Foreword

    The two integrating themes of this series are organizational change, and the strategic role of the human resource function.

    The 1990s have witnessed a further shift in thinking with respect to the organizational role of the personnel function. That shift has been reflected in the change of title – to human resource management – and revolves around the notion that effective human resource management is a critical dimension of an organization's competitive advantage. Personnel or human resource management is thus now more widely accepted as a strategic business function, in contrast with the traditional image of a routine administrative operation concerned with hiring, training, paying and terminating.

    The range of issues with which personnel managers must now deal has widened considerably, as has the complexity and significance of those issues. Conventional texts in this subject area typically have the advantage of comprehensiveness, by offering a broad overview of the function, its responsibilities, and key trends. Such coverage is always purchased at the expense of depth. The aim of this series, therefore, is not to replace traditional personnel or human resource texts, but to complement those works by offering in-depth, informed and accessible treatments of important and topical themes, written by specialists in those areas and supported by systematic research, often conducted by the authors themselves.

    The series is thus based on a commitment to contemporary changes in the human resource function, and to the direction of those changes. This has involved a steady shift in management attention to improved employee welfare and rights, genuinely equal opportunity, the effective management of diversity, wider employee involvement in organization management and ownership, changing the nature of work and organization structures through process ‘reengineering’, and towards personal skills growth and development at all organizational levels. Further significant trends have included the decline in trade union membership, the increased interest in ‘non-union’ organizations, and the potentially shifting responsibilities of the human resource function in this context. This series documents and explains these trends and developments, indicating the progress that has been achieved, and aims to contribute to best management practice through fresh empirical evidence and practical example.

    DavidBuchanan, Series Editor, De Montfort University School of Business, Leicester


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    The author joined The Business School, Loughborough University as Senior Lecturer in Organizational Behaviour in February 1996, having previously been Lecturer and then Senior Lecturer at Manchester School of Management, UMIST. He has directed several research projects on career development, especially in early career, and also conducts consultancy work in this area. Much of his work has involved graduate groups. His interests span all areas of career management, particularly those most closely connected with personal change and development. He has published numerous articles on career development in academic and practitioner journals, and together with Professors Ivan Robertson and Cary Cooper, has written the successful textbook Work Psychology. The third edition will be published in 1998. He is co-author of the 1996 monograph Managing Careers in 2000 and Beyond, published by the Institute for Employment Studies. He is a Chartered Psychologist registered with the British Psychological Society.

    List of Tables and Figures


    This book concerns how we as individuals can manage our own careers, and how organizations, particularly employers, can be involved in the management of individuals' careers. The world of employment has changed significantly in the last two decades of the 20th century and continues to do so. It is important that the notion of career is not confined to predictable upward movement over a long period of time within one organization or occupation, simply because this pattern has become rarer. Instead, a career concerns any sequence of employment-related positions. It includes people's subjective experiences of that sequence, not simply an objective account of the jobs they hold. Interest in careers is very high at present, due partly to the increasing complexity of managing them and the increasing importance of doing so well. This book is a response to those trends.

    Three areas of research, practice and theory are brought together in this book. The first concerns changing patterns and types of employment within economies as a whole and within employing organizations. The second concerns organization-based perspectives on career management: in particular how techniques such as mentoring, succession planning, relocation and flexible working patterns can facilitate the achievement of organizational goals whilst also honouring individual career aspirations. The third area is a more uniquely individual perspective on careers and their management. This particularly concerns the making of career decisions and the ways in which people's careers and whole lives develop during adulthood.

    I attempt to provide an accessible and scholarly analysis of what is known about career management in the areas described above. Emphasis is placed upon the usefulness or otherwise of this knowledge given the changing employment context as we approach and enter the 21st century. The probable future of careers and career management in the 21st century is also analysed. I hope and intend that there is much useful guidance in this book for individuals and organizations on how careers can and should be managed. However, this is not primarily a ‘do-it-yourself’ guide about how to have a successful career. Rather, this book aims to offer a wide-ranging and dispassionate account of different forms of careers, different techniques for managing them, and the conditions in which those techniques are used and in which they can be successful. Although written by an author based in the United Kingdom, the book is international in content and application.

    Given its aims, this book is intended for several different audiences. In no particular order, they are as follows. First are managers with responsibility for devising or implementing career management strategies in organizations. Second are students on postgraduate or undergraduate degrees in business, management and applied social sciences taking modules in career or human resource management. The third intended audience is those working for professional qualifications such as, in the UK, membership of the Institute of Personnel and Development (IPD). The fourth and final target group is individuals looking for an understanding of their own past, present and future careers – an understanding which goes deeper and wider than can be achieved by the completion of some self-assessment questionnaires or participation in a career development workshop.

    The role of organizations in careers is prominent in many sections of this book. I am acutely aware of the dangers inherent in referring to an organization as if it was an individual, speaking and acting with one voice and single intention. Organizations are of course made up of many coalitions with competing goals and views of reality. Nevertheless, for the sake of clarity I do, on occasions, refer to the organization as a single entity. I do so as a convenient shorthand for the goals and intentions of the dominant power group within the organization, which typically is senior management.

    Many people have contributed to this book, even though some of them may not be aware of it. I am particularly grateful to Charles Jackson at the Institute for Employment Studies, Kate Mackenzie Davey at Birkbeck College and Tony Watts at the (UK) National Institute for Careers Education and Counselling, who have all been stimulating discussion partners over the last several years. The publisher Paul Chapman and series editor David Buchanan have both provided helpful feedback and encouragement. My family have endured with fortitude the writing process, particularly in the latter stages when we could really have used some more time together. Colleagues at Loughborough University Business School have also contributed significant ideas, and been remarkably tolerant when I have whinged about how difficult it is to find the time to write a book and do everything else one is supposed to do in higher education these days. Irene Moody in particular has taken the brunt of this, and has provided reliable and expert help in word-processing, reference-checking and formatting. Without her assistance the book would have been a long time coming. It almost goes without saying, however, that any shortcomings of the book are solely my responsibility.

    I would welcome feedback about the book from readers, so if you want to tell me what you think, please do so. I am at The Business School, Loughborough University, Ashby Road, Loughborough, Leicestershire LE11 3TU, UK. Phone (+44) (0)1509 223121; fax (+44) (0)1509 223960; email

    Loughborough November 1996

  • Postscript

    The words of Hall and Mirvis (1995b) sum up the position taken in this book: Careers are dead; long live careers! In other words, orderly, predictable upwardly mobile careers are dead, but careers in a wider sense are alive and kicking. In fact they are kicking hard, prompting employing and other organizations, individuals and governments to think afresh about exactly what to do with them.

    At the widest level there are important choices to be made about how to maintain social cohesion. Work is becoming harder to find and increasingly dominated by those who have marketable skills. Education and training provision in many countries needs to expand and improve in order to meet the changing skill requirements of work. But that provision can pay off only if there is a pervasive culture supporting lifelong learning. In the absence of such a culture, and in the absence of a willingness to share work around, and perhaps to pay for previously unpaid work such as child-rearing, any society is likely to develop a deprived underclass, with serious implications for social justice and public order.

    Education and Career Guidance

    Education, whether compulsory or post-compulsory, should incorporate two particularly career-relevant features. These are already often evident, though some (e.g. Confederation of British Industry, 1989) would argue not evident enough due partly to the historical role of education as a brake on child labour and therefore separate from employment. The first feature is the application of what is being learned to the world of work. Young people, and indeed older ones, can benefit from being shown how classroom learning can be utilized at work. The most obvious ways of doing this are through examples and exercises based on work-place issues, and work experience built into education (though in the latter case it is often the experience of working per se that is most valued by students: the links between work and education are sometimes difficult for them to discern). Employers have an obvious role to play here if they want to do more than lament the sorry state of education, and many have engaged wholeheartedly in partnerships with education. The second feature of career-relevant education is a combination of learning how to learn and valuing learning for its own sake. Insights into one's preferred styles of learning, reflection on the learning process, and training in how to go about learning are all involved here. In one sense these activities represent a respite from the relentless vocationalism implied earlier in this paragraph. But in another sense they are the most vocational of all in rapidly changing work environments. Taken as a whole, career-friendly education means the integration of careers education into the curriculum as a whole, and may also mean some changes in teacher-trainmg, particularly towards familiarity with a wider range of occupations.

    The provision of affordable careers guidance services for people of all ages, either directly by public services or indirectly through private providers, is another way in which governments may choose to contribute to an appropriate infrastructure for managing careers. This would recognize the reality that significant decisions and changes are required right through adulthood, and that many people simply do not currently have the skills or other personal resources to handle this. It can be argued that careers guidance providers need to be impartial in the sense that they do not have a vested interest in the decisions and subsequent actions taken by individual clients (Watts, 1996). Governments may have well-founded aims, for example, to improve citizens' familiarity with information technology or to improve skills of entrepreneurship and small business management. It would be appropriate for careers guidance providers to point this out to clients. However, decisions and action plans about careers should be owned by individuals. This suggests that careers guidance providers should not be funded on the basis of, for example, the proportion of clients who embark upon a particular kind of training. This would encourage the providers to steer clients toward certain conclusions thus jeopardizing their sense of independence and ownership: ‘They sent me on a training course because everyone has to do it’ is not the kind of perception needed for career management in the 21st century.

    Information Technology

    Continuing technological change is likely to play a pervasive part in 21st-century career management. Although some have argued that the major technological changes wrought by the microchip have already happened, others take a different view. Van der Spiegel (1995) has stated that the information revolution is still in its infancy. The capacity and sophistication of integrated circuits continue to increase. The differences in computing power between PCs and mainframes are dwindling. In the future computers are likely to become ever more portable and with wider bandwidth, so that multiple functions such as phone, fax, computer, video-conference and email are all available on one machine. Some tasks such as vision, speech and natural language processing currently remain very difficult for computers, and although the neurons in human brains operate slowly compared with microchips, future computers are likely to mimic biological structures in important ways. In particular, the brain processes information from a variety of sources (the senses) and stores it in highly distributed fashion using the multiplicity of connections between neurons. Eventually we can expect computers which can process speech, learn, adapt, guess, and deal with ill-defined problems.

    It is vital that people are able to afford and use technology. This does not mean that each of us must be well versed in the most up-to-date hardware and software. That is too much to ask. Instead, we need to be familiar with the potential and general principles of operation of the latest generation of technology. We need to be able to use the parts most relevant to us and, most important, be able and unafraid to learn new applications when required. The declining cost of information technology and some of the trends described in the previous paragraph may help to make it more accessible to more people. But this must not be assumed. Opportunities to become familiar with technology at low cost must always be available.

    Information technology is highly relevant to career management as well as the narrower range of skills required to do a particular job. The opportunities for self-presentation via electronic media are becoming ever wider, and it is becoming ever more necessary to use them if one wants to be taken seriously by potential employers and other contacts. Career management by individuals can therefore include activities such as setting up one's own worldwide web page, searching the internet for information and contacts, and participating in electronic mailing and discussion groups relevant to one's career. Another activity is the preparation and revision of a curriculum vitae (CV; also known as a resume) to meet specifications set by, for example, employers who use scanning packages which require certain information to appear in certain positions on the CV. Computer packages for aiding career exploration and decision-making are of course already available (see Chapter 6). There is much scope for them to become more sophisticated. Multimedia packages can offer individuals considerable insight into what various occupations are like. In the future virtual reality technology may take that process a stage further – though whether it will be economic to create virtual reality simulations of occupations is not at all clear.

    But it is unlikely that information technology will fully take over from more traditional methods of networking, job search and career exploration. Predictions about the impact of new technology often turn out to be exaggerated at both societal or organizational levels of analysis. I could look pretty stupid in twenty years' time, but I suspect that many employment opportunities in the 21st century will still be publicized by traditional methods of newspaper advertising, notices in windows and word of mouth. This will particularly but not solely be the case for work requiring local labour and relatively limited skills. It will be a long time before electronic communication, even of a visual kind, is routinely considered to be a complete replacement for physical presence particularly in non-routine interactions such as negotiations or job interviews. Nevertheless, things are certainly moving in that direction.


    The previous section makes it clear that, for individuals managing their own 21st-century careers, effective use of information technology is at the very least useful and in some fields essential. But there are other important lessons for individuals too. The changing role of employers in career management (see especially Chapter 3) means that each of us must truly take responsibility for and the initiative in looking after our own careers. To some extent it was always thus of course. ‘Cradle to grave’ employment was always something of a myth, and the smart employee never waited for organizational human resource systems to deliver what he or she wanted. But the game has changed significantly, and many people are more on their own than has been the case in the past.

    Some of the implications for what you or I should actually do to manage our careers have been described in earlier chapters. If we have an employer, we should take advantage of whatever is offered in terms of career management and use it to our advantage. Career workshops, career action centres, personal development plans and mentoring are examples. For mentoring in particular, it may be possible to create opportunities for ourselves even if they are not formally organized. As we saw in Chapter 5, mentoring seems to work best as an informal relationship rather than as part of an organized scheme. Supports for career management may also come from elsewhere, such as professional associations, community groups, local careers services and libraries. It is important to be aware of what they can offer and take up Handy's (1994) advice, not to wait until we are reaching the point of dire need before we take advantage of them.

    Decisions (if we have that luxury) about what work opportunities to take up should be made in strategic fashion. It is not only what we feel comfortable with right now that matters. It is also what skills and experiences we need in order to remain employable in fields that appeal to us, and what patterns of working best fit our chosen or enforced lifestyle. All this requires a perceptive appreciation of current and future labour market trends, and of our own characteristics including which we value most and which we can compromise on. External indicators of career success will be more elusive, so again we must know what matters to us and what we regard as constituting satisfactory achievement.

    Work has of course always had implications for other arenas of a person's life – for example in terms of standard of living, the amount and distribution of leisure time available, and one's position in society. But now work and other roles are becoming more interpenetrated. For many people it is now difficult to earmark some blocks of time for work and other blocks for other activities. Technology has partly freed some work from restrictions of time and place. In turn this requires the skills and motivation for time management, and sensitive negotiation and agreement with significant others in our lives. Hage (1995) has pointed out that macroeconomic changes, shorter product cycles, changing work methods and enforced changes in the type of work a person does have all served to make life more complicated and relationships more superficial and short term, leading to more fragmented families. So for many of us, the day-to-day management of life and career involves more creative and co-operative problem-solving than in the past. It also requires us to understand and appreciate different possible ways of living because many examples are all around us. Increasingly, people seem to be feeling a need to establish or re-establish a personal morality now that the formerly small number of ‘approved’ lifestyles has grown. This is partly a recognition of the reality that children are profoundly affected by the nature and longevity of their relationships with adults.

    Some of the skills required for effective management of one's career can be learned relatively easily, but many require a substantial shift in mindset. Telling a person that it would be a good idea to embrace the possibility of alternative lifestyles, or to be more flexible in terms of the types of work he or she can envisage doing, does not necessarily enable him or her to change, even if such a change is desired. This underscores the need for education to reflect the demands of 21st-century careers early in a child's life. As Hall and Mirvis (1995b) have put it, to earn a living a person must also learn a living. The increasing pace of change should also increase both the requirement and the reward for learning among older workers. The requirement reflects the need to stay employable. The potential reward derives from the likelihood that the best employers can hope for from skill development is relatively short-term advantage, so if other things are equal there is no added benefit in investing in a young person rather than an older one.

    Other skills for individual career management concern the negotiation of mutual expectations with employers (see Chapter 3). Like some other career management skills, these are based on a good understanding of one's own compromisable and uncompromisable preferences as well as the strength or otherwise of one's labour market position.

    One tension for many people is the need on the one hand to perform well in work right now, and on the other to seek ways in which to develop. Up to a point this can be resolved by taking on assignments that demand the development of new skills, thus killing two birds with one stone – so long as one's limitations in the early days and weeks in the job are not so great as to prevent satisfactory levels of performance. All in all though it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that career management and day-to-day work will tend to make greater demands on us in the 21st century than they did during most of the 20th. This is especially difficult for people to accept in societies which have enjoyed steadily increasing standards of living since the Second World War.


    We saw in Chapter 3 that employing organizations have tended to step back from managing the careers of employees, and that this could involve either an aggressive ‘you're in it on your own’ posture or a more supportive orientation with an emphasis on facilitating individuals' self-development efforts. It was also recognized that some employers are re-entering career management in recognition that an overly laissez-faire approach is unlikely to meet their human resource requirements. The career management interventions available to organizations are many and varied. They were analysed in several chapters, especially 4 and 5, so the details will not be repeated here.

    Aside from the technical merits of the career management interventions they use in the 21st century, employing organizations can help to set a context which serves both their interests and those of their employees. It is easy to assume that this mutual benefit will automatically occur if intentions are good, but this is not the case. In particular, career management interventions must be designed to enhance people's long-term adaptability as well as short-term fit with their job. This includes the learning how to learn skills described earlier in this postscript, in the section on education. Perhaps the most sure-fire way to achieve this is to combine developmental work assignments with self-reflection aided perhaps by personal development planning, mentoring or career workshops. But this requires a strong organization-wide commitment to the value of learning. The commitment includes understanding that permissible costs of developmental assignments include some loss of performance (including perhaps the odd mistake), especially early in the assignment, and investment in support and perhaps training in key ‘getting started’ skills.

    Another contextual issue concerns how much investment of identity employers demand of employees. Hage (1995) has noted that people tend these days to be conscious of the many aspects of their self-identity, and to carry this consciousness around with them rather than automatically suppressing some aspects when not in situations which immediately evoke them. This rather abstract point has practical consequences. It means that organizations are ill-advised to expect total commitment, as some do, or to establish cultures which are not only distinctive but which also intrude into employees' lives. Especially now most people realize that their employment is not necessarily secure, they will not in any case wish to invest their identity too exclusively in the realm of employment. For employers, the key is to manage employee behaviour more than attitudes and values. After all, ultimately employers want employees to do things, not simply believe them or feel positive about them. Further, analytical reflection rather than uncritical acceptance is a key contributor to employee flexibility as well as career management. Employers should therefore value a certain detachment, as opposed to alienation, from their staff.

    We noted earlier that profound changes have been occurring in organizational structures (see especially Chapters 2 and 3). Delayering and downsizing have important implications for careers. More subtly, though, we also saw earlier that boundaries within and between organizations are breaking down. It is not always clear exactly who is a member of an organization. For example, how short term does a person's contract have to be for him or her to be merely a visitor rather than member? Is an individual on a two-year project-based contract a member of the organization? If you have regular work as a cleaner in a particular organization but are employed by another because cleaning has been outsourced, of which organization(s) are you a member? Joint ventures, mergers and more local events such as representatives of supplying companies working on projects within the companies they supply are other examples of the blurring of organizational boundaries.

    Questions are therefore raised about exactly who is entitled to participate in an organization's career management interventions. In some cases the response is to treat everyone the same by opening up career management interventions (especially off-the-job ones) to all comers, and charging on a pay-as-you-use basis. Organizations may co-operate in the provision of some interventions such as career action centres. They may also open up career paths which cross the boundaries between them. This enhances opportunities for personal, and hence organizational, learning from new experiences. More employers are becoming sympathetic to the idea that staff may leave and later return – indeed some (e.g. Price Waterhouse) are said to treat departed staff as something akin to alumni. Organizations other than the employer may play a role in career management too. Some trade unions and professional associations provide career-related services to members, and this role may develop in certain cases into acting as an individual's agent in negotiations with a potential employer.

    Some of the literature on career management seems more readily applicable to large organizations than to small ones. This is unfortunate in an era when small organizations are becoming more prevalent. References to career paths, career workshops, succession planning and development centres do tend to evoke images of large or at least medium-sized organizations. Other interventions, such as developmental assignments and mentoring, are perhaps more obviously applicable to small organizations, though even here opportunities to make them may be more haphazard and unpredictable than in large ones. Leaders of small organizations need to resist the temptation to shrug and conclude that career management is not for them. They can combine efforts and resources with other small organizations, and need to do so for the reasons described throughout this book.

    The notion of organization as a loosely connected network of individuals is made more real by advances in communications technology which enable some people to work at home or in other places that are not the organization's premises. Career management interventions in such distributed organizations may serve even more diverse purposes than in other ones. They may bring people together for information and skills sharing that would not otherwise happen. They may cement working relationships that are normally conducted at a distance. They may help to acquaint individuals with career opportunities and the organization's present and future procedures and skill requirements. In short, the benefits of career management interventions for individual development and organizational competitiveness in ‘distributed’ organizations may be that much greater than in more situated outfits. This is the case even though interventions may seem a less natural activity, and require more arranging, in distributed organizations than situated ones.

    Finally, there are some general rules of thumb for organizations in managing careers (Hirsh, Jackson and Jackson, 1995). These have been described in Chapters 3 and 9. It is better to have a few well-resourced interventions than many poorly resourced ones. The interventions must have clear aims – in particular whether they primarily concern vacancy filling or longer-term development needs. They must have payoffs for individuals as well as organizations. The interventions must have links with other human resource practices whilst preserving individual control and responsibility for outcomes wherever possible. They need to be evaluated in terms of their impact on individual behaviour and organizational performance, and over reasonably long time-frames. In short, as for individuals, career management by organizations requires substantial effort and an eye to the future as well as the present.


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