Articles > Career Planning Mirrors Social Change

Career Planning Mirrors Social Change
Globe & Mail, February 01, 1999

Barbara Moses, Ph.D, is an international speaker, work/life expert, and best-selling author of Dish: Midlife Women Tell the Truth About Work, Relationships, and the Rest of Life.

I have been involved in providing career planning support to organizations for the past twenty years. Over that time there have been significant changes in organizations' objectives in offering career support to staff, and in the career issues and concerns expressed by individuals -- changes which have directly mirrored dominant social and economic trends.

A Concern For Continuity

When I first started out in the late 1970s, career planning support was directed primarily at high-potential young workers for succession planning. Organizations wanted to ensure the availability of a talent pool for the long term. Career planning was a vehicle for collecting information about skills, strengths and developmental needs so that future incumbents could be developed for senior management roles.

While individuals would receive feedback on the results of various personality and aptitude tests that they took, the whole process was essentially driven by the organization's needs.

"How do I get from job A to job B to job C? How do I get ahead, faster, faster, faster?" These were the typical career concerns individuals expressed in those days. Career paths were clearly defined: it was simply a matter of finding the one that would provide the fastest route to the top. When asked where they saw themselves five years down the line, they routinely identified a position at the vice-president level.

Career Progress Slows

By the early 1980s organizations started to become concerned about the inflated expectations of these achievement-oriented baby boomers for rapid advancement. The surge in baby boomers into organizations meant too many people competing for too few jobs, while organizations were becoming flatter, with fewer levels through which an individual could move.

Many people felt their career progress slow to a crawl, while others were plateauing -- reaching a level from which further advancement was unlikely. Organizations worried: how could they keep these people motivated and performing well in an era of slow career growth? They fretted that people might have to spend as much as one year at the same level before being promoted -- concerns which seem almost quaint today. For some organizations retention was also a key issue: holding on to their impatient young high-potential workers in the face of apparently greener fields of opportunity elsewhere.

Increasingly, career planning was seen a strategy for maintaining motivation and commitment by helping staff identify other sources of career satisfaction beyond immediate promotion. There was a dawning recognition that "up is not the only direction" -- that people could still find challenge and enjoyment at work through lateral moves, skills development, job enrichment and special assignments.

From the late 1970s onwards, organizations saw an influx of well-educated women into the workplace -- women who demanded that their careers and potential be treated on a par with that of men. And with the threat of government legislation, organizations provided career support to these women both as a means to keep them and to accelerate their development.

With the onset of the great wave of mergers, downsizing and restructuring that began in the mid-1980s, to the extent that organizations cared at all about career issues, it was as a way of helping survivors retain their commitment to the organization after witnessing the darker side of commerce.

Enter The New Employment Contract

Today, job security is dead, and loyalty to the organization in the traditional sense has died along with it. Organizations are redefining what it means to have a career and what an individual can reasonably expect from an organization, and vice versa.

Rather than seeing career planning as something which is of primary benefit to the organization, and only incidental benefit to the individual, organizations recognize that the only way to gain the benefits of motivation and high performance is to respond to individual's careers concerns. These concerns are considerably more sophsticated than how to move rapidly from Job A to Job to Job C; in a period of constant change, people understand that Job B may not even exist a year from now, or may demand quite different skills.

Today's savvy organizations provide career support to help people deal with change and manage the ambiguity associated with the new employment contract; and to help them manage their complicated and over-committed lives. Issues of work / life balance have come to the forefront, as organizations directly experience the impact of their employees' stressful lives as they struggle to juggle the numerous competing demands at work and at home.

Rather than offering the promise of job security, organizations emphasize employability. By providing career planning, they are ensuring staff have the skills to manage their own careers whether inside or outside the organization.

In some ways, though, things have come full circle. Where once organizations were concerned about retention, then moved to sweeping staff reductions, today they are again worried about retaining people -- many of whom were so cavalierly treated earlier and who continue to feel like disposable units of productivity. And once again, providing career planning support is seen as a way of cementing staff loyalties, if not for an entire career then at least for a few more years.

Individuals, like organizations, have changed in their attitudes to career planning. For one thing, such programs now reach much higher in an organization. It used to be when managers were offered the opportunity to go through a career planning experience, they would often comment, "I don't need this personally, but it will be good for my employees." Today, those very same managers are saying, "Me first."

There has also been a sea change in people's openness to discussing career concerns. Where ten years ago managers and professionals participating in workshops used to be cagey about their own career interests and would keep their goals close to their chests, today they are expressive about what they want and need, and are happy sharing their feelings with their colleagues.

There have been changes, too, in traditional male-female differences. Ten years ago, when participants were offered the opportunity to look at personal values and how well they were balancing life, women were typically very keen to examine those issues. Men preferred to focus on the "hard stuff" - their accomplishments, their skills and what they had to do to prepare themselves for a given job five years down he road. Today, these gender differences have eroded to the point where men are just as likely as women to want to pursue the "soft" issues such as values, the pursuit of personal authenticity, and work/life balance. Not only are they not so concerned about looking like there is something wrong with them if they are interested in exploring these areas, they actively embrace it.

Contemporary Career Concerns

  • Most common career concerns today revolve around living with chronic uncertainty, a constant need to sell oneself, and a lack of time to complete either work or personal objectives in a way that remotely satisfies.

  • Individuals complain about a lack of management direction from their overworked, beleaguered managers. Whereas historically they may have gone to their manager with questions about their career, those managers are no longer available to provide such coaching and counseling. Over and over again people talk about their managers not having a clue about the sheer volume and pace of their work, and this is exacerbated by the fact that they no longer have anyone to go to for direction.

  • Recently we've seen the growth of coaching, as everyone wants a leg up in a highly competitive marketplace, along with the desire for a personal agent to help them navigate. Coaches are picking up some of the slack for absentee managers.

  • How have the women done? They still feel different -- it's still a man's world out there.