Giving up on careers advice*

If something is important, but not possible, should schools try to do it anyway?

There is no better example of a thing-that-can’t-be-done than careers education. The argument for careers education seems compelling: many students (particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds) don’t know what jobs are out there, therefore careers advice is important.

Nearly every adult you meet has an amusing story about what a careers advisor – whether human or computer – suggested they could do. (Mine’s boring. I told them I liked maths => accountant.) Most agree that the various manifestations of careers education we’ve seen haven’t been great. I used to think the challenge of careers education was an operational one – how can one person or an algorithm generate sensible advice for such diverse students? However, reading Chapter 7 of Range by David Epstein has persuaded me that the challenge of careers education is a conceptual one.

The trouble with careers advice is that it assumes that individuals have fixed personalities and interests that don’t change over time or across contexts. (Why would we think this? We are apparently good at recognising how much we have changed in the past, but fail to translate this into recognising we may change a lot in the future too – the “end of history illusion”.) Research shows that we change our personalities a great deal between age eighteen and our late twenties, so “specialising in a particular career early is a task of predicting match quality for a person who does not yet exist”. We simply cannot pigeon hole ourselves using career counselling and personality quizzes.

Epstein describes the research of Herminia Ibarra into the reality of how professional careers are chosen. Rather than set out on a predetermined path, Ibarra concludes that “we maximise match quality throughout life by sampling activities, social groups, contexts, jobs, careers, and then reflecting and adjusting our personal narratives”. According to this research, we shouldn’t ask students who they want to become, but encourage them to decide “Which among my various possible selves should I start to explore now?

Of course, this doesn’t fix the difficulty that we can only explore the possible selves that we are capable of imagining. Students do need to make some immediate choices about courses and jobs, and though there is more open information about these things than there has ever been in the history of career selection, they may not find it alone. So what advice should we give?

Well, the book Range eases the pressure to give optimised advice at age 16 or 18 by making the case that generalists are able to have successful careers and lives, even in – or indeed especially in – an increasingly specialised world. For much innovation happens via the transmission and mutation of ideas across fields. If the best track in life is to keep options open, study as many subjects as possible, and move between different industries and types of jobs, then it doesn’t matter so much exactly what choices you make at school.

The message that generalists can triumph is music to the ears of a quitter like me. I have felt lifelong guilt that I’m a quitter. I don’t think this guilt just reflects society’s mantra: “but can she stick at anything?” I think we also place pressure on ourselves to invent a personal arc of purpose and direction in life. Switching jobs disrupts that sense of purpose.

Now, in middle age, I’m starting to see the benefits of quitting – and not just because it is enormously fun to keep learning new things. Laura and I constantly laugh about how useful our short careers as a management consultant (Laura) and investment banker (me) have turned out to be now we are running a company. When you leave an old job behind, it is easy to assume you won’t use many learnt skills again. Maybe you won’t. Maybe you will. But one thing is for certain – if you aren’t learning new skills on the job, then you aren’t filling up your toolbox with things you might be able to draw on when new challenges come your way.

Students from lower occupational classes will face disadvantages in the workplace. Not because they haven’t had good careers advice at 16, but because they don’t have the family wealth and social networks to create space to experiment in different types of jobs throughout their life. This is a problem, but not one it is within the gift of schools to fix. Instead, we need to create more contentious and expensive policy levers – schools of second chances that provide the opportunity to re-train and study as adults; strong regulation to facilitate internships and work experience for those who have household bills to pay; paid sabbatical months for each decade of completed work, and so on. Careers advisors in schools aren’t just a poor alternative, they are an incorrect conceptualisation of what a career looks like.

Schools are said to be one of the last unifying structures in society through which we can try to manipulate life courses, but this needn’t be so. We ask so much of them because we aren’t prepared to stump up the cash for solutions that might actually work (or indeed intervene in supposedly free and fair labour markets). When we ask schools to fix society’s most intractable problems it isn’t without consequences.

A year ago I started talking about the strange riddle of how we should spend money to close the attainment gap. I call it a riddle because I’m not sure closing the attainment gap is within the gift of schools to achieve at any price (or at least without a radical re-conceptualisation of what a school is for). Of course many people working in schools, deep in their hearts, know this. So why are they happy to take on the impossible challenge? Perhaps one reason is that it feels nice – powerful, even – to believe your job can be the solution for society’s ills. Perhaps you simply wish it were true that you could close the attainment gap. (And perhaps politicians throwing you a financial bung to keep up the pretense that you can close the gap makes it so much the sweeter.)

I suspect we all know that career advice in schools can never live up to all we demand of it. Similarly, I suspect both sides – the schools and the politicians – know it isn’t possible for schools alone to close the attainment gap. And yet by pretending they can, they are each the answer to the other’s prayers. The collective delusion damages no one. Or does it? For somewhere in all of this is the class teacher, working away every night at every last thing that they can possibly do, no matter how meaningless or marginal, in the pursuit of closing the gap. And we have school leaders juggling the never-ending list of non-academic activities that somebody has decided it is schools’ job to deliver.

And where do we end up? With a teacher retention crisis, shortages and non-selective entry to the teaching profession. And once we have systemic teacher shortages, it is inevitable that schools serving disadvantaged communities suffer the most.

And yet… we have inequalities in life chances, so something must be done. Schools could do something. Therefore they must.


* Careers advice is different from general workplace experiences, which are useful (though time-consuming) without worrying about a good match to current student personality and interests.

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