Sifting reality from the images of work

7th April 1995 at 01:00
How do we choose which job we'd really like? Is the process different for the first jobs which people take, from when they are re-thinking the options after a career break (unemployment, or child-rearing)? At first sight, the process by which children choose their educational and then career routes is a very different one from that by which adults choose second careers.

In both cases, however, the choice is strongly influenced by their beliefs about the people who do that work, and the lifestyle associated with it. Our ideas about those are shaped by a number of structured and unstructured influences, but are more likely now than hitherto to be affected by the images that we receive from the media.

At both stages, most of us discuss our options with other people. We all discuss them with family and friends, who are known to have the greatest influence. The young also have access to careers teachers in school and to careers officers, but increasingly older people too can seek out careers advice from independent agencies, or appropriate staff in colleges or universities.

Teachers and careers advisers are living in the same media-environment as we are: to what extent is their advice shaped by the essentially simplifying processes involved in presenting images of work through the media? Do these images narrow our choices, or do they have a freeing effect on our expectations and aspirations? I would like to explore the influences of the media on career choice, and look at its implications for the theory, practice and policy concerning careers advice.

Careers guidance is now high on the policy agenda. More resources than ever before have been targeted at it, and policy is couched in the language of flexibility; but much of the spending on information systems and careers material, and even the entitlement to a "personal action plan," assume a relatively stable world in which people make good or bad choices but hopefully "end up" in the "right" job.

The world we now occupy is far from stable. As well as the changes to the economy which are reshaping the jobs themselves, the way in which people are employed is changing drastically. How this actually affects specific areas of work is essential information for any individual's plans and choices, but it is too complex to be transmitted in the course of a single guidance interview.

The media are transmitting mixed messages about the nature of work: some observers stress the benefits of these changes, but the reality for many may be harsher. What are the implications for the distribution of resources between careers education and careers guidance, and, given the need for lifelong updating, what is the potential role for the media in continuing careers education after people have left school, college or university?

Career choice is at the intersection of a number of academic disciplines, both in the theory that informs its professionals, and in the part it plays in those academic disciplines' own models. Its links with psychology are clear: personality and aptitude tests are again playing a greater part in careers guidance. Theories from social psychology and occupational psychology increasingly dominate recruitment, and therefore must be understood by guidance workers. Developmental psychology underpins many theories of career choice. The process by which people calculate and then decide about the rewards of alternative forms of employment, and the structure and dynamics of the labour market belong to economics, and sociology informs some of the theorists of vocational choice, although not as much as you would expect given how central people's choice of jobs is to sociology, and its potential for explaining some of the factors influencing our stereotypes.

Models of career choice in the practice-oriented theoretical literature take stereotypes about kinds of work as given, as the building bricks for hypotheses about decision-making. More work is needed on how people, and their advisers, acquire their beliefs about their preferred, or tolerated, options.

At a practical level, a considerable amount of work has gone into "telling the truth" about the standard careers, the sort that recruit people at predictable points on the educational path. Some of these are about kinds of profession: medicine, accountancy, joinery; some are about kinds of workplace: the armed forces, Unilever, the hairdressing salon. It comes as books or leaflets, as computer programmes, as interactive video, radio and television programmes, and increasingly for people in the educational system, as work experience. Although many people's career choices benefit from this, it is generally used to check out decisions that have already been made: if the choice based on that stereotype turns out to be incorrect, we try another. The other kind of stereotypes, those about the kinds of work that suit different genders, races, ages and physical attributes, can be seen as layered above or below our stereotypes about what the work actually consists of, and filter our choices even of those.

Some media features address career options directly, and make powerful contributions to clarifying the reality about the world of work (if within certain assumptions). But set behind the articulated careers material on radio, television and in the press, are the vaguer but more widespread media images of work: on the one hand a simplistic world from between the covers of l950s Janet-and-John readers; and on the other hand an exaggeration of the extent to which people do, or could, work in tele-cottages or benefit from the increased "flexibility". Should professionals and policy-makers be making more explicit efforts to harness the power of these background influences, or at least to check whether the foreground career-specific material over which they could have control, addresses the real changes in employment?

It will not be easy to assess the extent to which our stereotypes are shaped by the media, or compare the relative influence of these two kinds of image. One approach would be to collate autobiographical accounts of people one year into a job, about the source and nature of their expectations, and the process whereby they modified their early stereotypes. I would want to match a group of young people with a group of people choosing for the second time later in life, and consider ways of comparing or controlling for gender and social class.

In both cases, I would interview any professional careers advisers who had helped them with their choices. To be completed in one year, the sample would have to be small, but it would be possible from it to clarify the different parts played by the media in career choice, and grounded in literature from the relevant academic disciplines, then produce clearer hypotheses for testing on a larger scale.

In the meantime, its own findings would be of practical use in three ways: in the training of guidance professionals over the part the media could play in programmes of careers education and guidance for first and later choices; in revising our understanding of the origins and stability of stereotypes within theories of vocational choice; and in shaping policy in those sectors of the media which attempt to help people make realistic choices that at the same time fulfil their potential.

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