Challenging Career ‘Success’ in the time of Covid

Money? Recognition? Progression? Development? Brightening someone’s day? Changing the world? Breaking Olympic records? What does success look like to you?

The concept of career ‘success’ has always been something of a bugbear of mine, not least due to the fact that it often involves creating a linear, standardised definition that we expect the vast majority of individuals to seamlessly slot into. However, the past 16 months has brought into sharp focus how we view our careers and the career pathways of others around us, which brings me hope that we can reach a place where conversations about career success, for individuals of all ages, are more of a dialogue than a diktat. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has seen shifts in the public perception of a number of areas of work that have the potential to challenge how we define what makes a meaningful job or career pathway – in the UK, we recognised the commitment of NHS workers weekly during the height of the pandemic (as just one example, searched for ‘NHS Careers’ saw a huge leap during two of the first three national lockdowns - (https://trends.google.co.uk/trends/explore?geo=GB&q=NHS%20Careers), parents/carers got a better insight into how challenging the role of a teacher can be through enforced home-schooling and many of us working in traditionally white-collar roles began to understand the benefits and challenges that come with working-from-home. However, this has been tempered by more contentious public discussions over issues like what makes someone a ‘key worker’, which have exposed existing divisions in terms of how we evaluate other people’s career choices.

In my experience, one of the biggest facilitators of career stereotypes is the dreaded anecdotal evidence – you’ll likely be extremely familiar with this repeat offender, who regularly appears in both the media and on social media platforms, both personal and professional, with unhelpful kernels of wisdom such as “It worked for me” and “These five habits will guarantee you success in your career”. Now, I should point out at this stage that I have no issue with individuals sharing anecdotal examples from their experience to help others broaden their knowledge of different job/industries (indeed, it is an important aspect of meaningful employer interactions for young people when coupled with access to effective professional careers guidance) but when it comes to career ‘success’, it can help perpetuate narrow definitions of what it means to have a meaningful career and contribute to issues of ‘comparism’ that can be so prevalent on social media.

So, given the above and evidence from organisations like Cedefop that indicate many young people’s career aspirations are heavily shaped by socio-economic status, gender and migrant background (https://www.cedefop.europa.eu/en/publications-and-resources/publications/2230), what can we do to tackle the tyranny of career success stereotypes? The following could be a good place to start:

  • Reframe career ‘success’ as ‘meaningful careers’ – this language has the potential to be far more inclusive and acknowledge the myriad definitions of what makes a career meaningful to someone, whether this is financial gain, status, solving problems or making a difference within your field. It also helps us move away from the narrative of ‘success’, which can often be associated with ‘winners and losers’ and an overly linear focus on people’s work/lives. Gratifyingly, there appears to be a growing recognition of the importance of meaning in work, with many organisations now embedding the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals into their values/mission statement and even destination data metrics like the Graduate Outcomes Survey considering incorporating ‘job quality’ and ‘meaningfulness’ into its assessment (https://www.hepi.ac.uk/2021/07/06/can-we-assess-job-quality-using-the-graduate-outcome-survey/).
  • Question and challenge the representation of particular job roles/career pathways in popular culture to cut off any potentially negative associations before they are ingrained – in her blog, Dr. Emma Bolger amusingly details the numerous disingenuous portrayals of careers advisers in TV/film, but this fixation on extreme depictions of careers (whether positive or negative) can be seen reflected throughout society and we should always try to call this out where we see it.
  • Talk to people more about their careers! A significant proportion of the people we meet in our lives are likely to have had non-linear career paths and understanding the challenges and anxieties that they have faced and overcome in their working lives can be a helpful tonic for when we are faced with the dreaded ‘impostor syndrome’ or we are bombarded with stories of ‘high-flyers’ who only represent one form of success. As Elaine Mead eloquently notes in her Medium blog, talking about what makes work meaningful to us and ‘crafting’ our current roles to maximise the aspects that make us feel most fulfilled also allows us to change the way we perceive the value of the work we do.

With the Covid-19 pandemic and all of the challenges that have come with it having forced many of us to consider what is most important in our lives, there is no better time to start having honest conversations about the concept of career ‘success’ and what meaningful careers can look like for different people. As the great American gymnast, Simone Biles, recently noted on Twitter following the outpouring of support over her decision to withdraw from parts of the Tokyo Olympics to protect her mental and physical wellbeing - The outpouring of love & support I’ve received has made me realize I’m more than my accomplishments and gymnastics which I never truly believed before – if one of the most decorated athletes of all time is able to question their definition of what ‘success’ means to them, there is hope for us all.

Finally, I’d be remiss to conclude a blog post on challenging narratives of career ‘success’ without congratulating the thousands of students across the UK who have received their A-Level/GCSE/Scottish Higher/National/BTEC/other vocational qualification results over the past fortnight – ignore the media noise, you have worked incredibly hard to achieve your results during one of the most challenging and disrupted years of education in history and deserve to take time to celebrate and let your achievement sink in, whatever your results. As journalist and television presenter Steph McGovern noted on Twitter this past week

The hashtag #NoWrongPath has been trending in Scotland on Results Day for a few years now and what better message to end on – whatever your results this year, take time to consider your options, use the support available from your school/college careers team to explore your potential next steps and remember not to judge yourself by anyone else’s definition of ‘success’.

 

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