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propositions in search of professionalism - part five

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Bill Law
20 October 2011

this is part five of a five-part keynote presentation to the 2011 annual conference of the ICG
the series starts at

5.  pushing the boundary -  managing control and finding space

The proposition is that boundary setting can be a covert form of control.  It is true that setting limits on what we do is a practical necessity, but it is also true that the way those limits are set can circumscribe our independence.  It curtails our basis for knowing what to support - and what to oppose. 

the personal and the planetary:  If students-and-clients are to narrate what they learn from experience, should there be limits to what they relate?  Probably.  But what links are appropriate and what are not?  Everybody links working to shopping - the one permits the other.  And the work that a person takes up is linked, not just to their own life chances, but the lives of any dependents they have - or ever will have.  And people increasingly voice concerns for work-life balance.  They also see the impact of work on quality-of-life as it links both to local neighbourhoods - even to African villages.  Indeed, those impacts are seen as linking to the survival of species and the habitability of the biosphere - work has a carbon footprint.  The links that people make to working life extend between the personal and the planetary.

They extend well beyond limits set by recruitment-and-selection interests.  And also beyond the market thinking of neo-liberal policy. 

students and clients pushing back boundaries:  Influential interests set limits on career talk.  And that goes against wide-spread contemporary personal-to-planetary interests.  The trends are well-documented by political commentators, sociologists, counselling-advocates, labour economists and behavioural psychologists.  And our own research accords with the trends, it finds students and clients pushing back boundaries.  It also finds people who see child care as a form of work, and who are wondering about work that endangers the planet.

None of this means that careers are boundaryless - if ‘career’ means everything then it means nothing.  But that is not what happens: people directly relate their concerns to labour-market experience.  To pre-empt the expression of these concerns would limit the disclosure’s they make, the extent of what we learn from each other, and the help we are - therefore - able to offer.  They would also curtail the interests we feel able to support - and resist.  It would diminish us

whether the big society is big enough:  Such thinking re-locates careers work in other-than-commerce and other-than-government alliances.  Does that leave anywhere worth going?  The big society is urged as a way of taking on group action which government is not able, or not willing, to take on.  The idea is much derided; but there is a more robust concept - ‘civil society’.  Civil society is characterised as social action which is neither commercial nor political.  Voluntary agencies, charities and bona fide non-government organisations are - in varying degrees - examples.  So are family, local, social and religious affiliations.  There are tensions, take-overs and changing alignments: association football was once part of civil society.  Professional associations still may be.  Together the agencies and affiliations of civil society weave a social fabric which supports the way we live together - locally and on the planet.  And so, it should be possible to say ‘yes’ to a question about whether the big society is big enough.  Is it a natural position for careers-work professionalism?  Probably. 

What are called ‘bottom-line’ interest in careers work are actually commercial interests of shareholder.  Civil society represents stakeholder interests.  And all of the agencies and affiliations concerned with the social fabric have a natural interest in what careers workers do.  It calls for multilateral, rather than bilateral, partnership agreements.  Multi-laterality comes as no surprise to committed careers advisers and socially alert educators.  The mapping of their links is as diverse as any in civil society.  We need that independent positioning institutionalised.  And a natural home for the institution is not the employer of careers workers - who may well defer powerful policy and commercial interests.  The natural home for the institution of careers work is in civil society.  Because the future is multilateral.

Practical questions for that reality are...

‘who has a stake in careers work?’
‘which of their interests should be our interests?‘
‘how do we manage those boundaries on what we do?’


Late twentieth-century careers-work has been a story of repeated crisis.  The crises have usually been on the back of head-lined events.  And the events have usually been outside our control.  Headlines aside - the hyper-active manipulation of how we live together by commerce and policy is becoming widely suspect.

Along with many others, in all kinds of societies across the globe, we can think of re-positioning ourselves in relation to policy and commerce.  The careers profession alliance is well placed to work on this.  If not through the alliance, then I believe we will do it - belatedly - in some in some other way.

We need to do things differently.  And it will take time.  The task is innovation deeper and wider than careers work has ever taken on.  It is for careers workers to take charge of their own future. 

Who better?


this text from the beginning...

a pdf version of the entire five-part text...

the powerpoint presentation...

the monograph, fully referenced...

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