How does society affect career development of young people?

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How does society affect career development of young people?

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Written by John Berry on 4th May 2017. Revised 3rd April 2023.

16 min read

The Nature of the Career

Drinking coffee with friendsTake three young people, each around the age of 24, living in the same street.

Brian did science at state school. He has professional engineer parents. He did software engineering at university: the Forbes (2012) number one career for 2013. He joined a City software system developer. He was recently promoted to Team Leader and is set to soon be a Chartered Engineer. He has a flat in the City and enjoys sailing.

Helen studied science at private school. She has professional parents. She wanted to be a nurse but enrolled at university to read medicine. She changed at the end of first year to medical science, and then changed again to graduate in psychology. She’s since abandoned psychology and gone back to do another three years as an undergrad in ophthalmology. She enjoys socialising.

Joe took general craft-oriented subjects at state school. His parents are employed in crafts. He started an engineering course at college but abandoned it. He started a building course and abandoned that. He has been jobbing for various builders in the town, roofing, ground working and bricklaying. He lives at home and is a regular in one of the local pubs.

Whilst modified slightly, these narratives of early careers are based on those of living young people. They illustrate differences and similarities between young people aged 16-25 living in 2012 in the UK. And they perhaps support the comment from Peter Daws (1992) that:
Apart from a privileged minority of the population, individuals are (more or less) constrained in their choice of occupations by social variables that are outside their control”.

Because Your People MatterThis paper is about how the wider society in which a young person lives, is educated and works affects their career options, decisions and subsequent development. It looks first at some of the difference and development theories of careers. It considers how young people make decisions and what influences those decisions. It then describes the context of the wider society, drawing on sociology. And it closes the discussion with a review of the opposing psychosocial positions of the young person as agent and the young person as a society member. In drawing conclusion this essay suggests that one cannot separate the individual and society in careers development. It also suggests that for young people today, social media is probably the primary networking site and as such, probably the site that conveys greatest societal influence as young people struggle to get established in careers.

Careers have many definitions. Wilensky (1961) suggests they are a ‘succession of related jobs’. Maanen & Schein (1977) describe them as ‘related experiences and adventures’, including those not associated with employment. Cohen et al (2004) define careers as an ‘iterative and on-going process’ involving reproduction and transformation of structures. We can see elements of each in the three young persons’ profiles above as they strive to start careers that will likely last a further 40 or 50 years.

Post-modern careers are described as ‘boundaryless’, assuming the individual as agent exploiting opportunities (Arthur & Rounsseau, 1996; Inkson, 2006). Hutton (1995) claims that this is an overly optimistic view saying that 30% of individuals are disadvantaged and another 30% are insecure in this structure. Hall (1976) describes post-modern careers as Protean, morphing from one thing to another in search of individual self-fulfilment. Others describe organisational careers (Smith & Sheridan, 2006) where management remove the personal responsibility for charting one’s future within a single working context. These are all viewed with hindsight: but young people are at the start of their careers. How did they achieve what they have and what will affect their future careers?

To answer, we must first determine the level of analysis. Giddens (1984) describes a three-level structure encompassing intra-individual (psychology leading to decisions), interpersonal (leading to socialisation through family and close friends) and groups and societies (sociology describing the individual in context). He argues for a duality of approach whereby action at the individual or agent level assumes social structure and vice versa. Young people therefore attempt to make choices in their careers (through interests and motivations) but they do so against a back drop of social constraints (March & Simon, 1958). So, on the one hand there’s an assumption about autonomous decision making and on the other about responding to social pressure.

Young People, Decisions and Development

Applying Adler’s (1957) inferiority and compensation theory, young people are motivated to strive, whether consciously or not, towards the goal of career success. Success is an ill-defined variable arising from Seligman’s (2002) ideas of human striving for happiness. Success is generally thought of in two forms: objective success and subjective success. Objective success is described by aspects of a person’s career like salary and promotion that can be seen by others (Judge et al, 1995). Objective success can be expected by peers using a variety of scales and norms. Buddeburg-Fischer et al (2008) exemplify this with an illustration of a strict structure describing how doctors should progress. Subjective success is measured by more nebulous variables like career satisfaction resulting in affect (Greenhaus et al, 1990, Judge et al, 1995).

So how do young people make career decisions?

Using Milgram’s (1974) agency theory, in the autonomous state individuals will make conscious decisions based on their own ideas, beliefs and experiences. Kohlberg (1969) and Gilligan (1982) suggest that individuals make moral decisions. For young women, connecting with and taking care of others is reinforced by society whereas for men, separating from others and becoming an individual is reinforced. Several writers suggest possible ways in which careers may develop (Thomas, 1989; Guest & Sturges 2007). And five academics identify the age range as being of specific interest: Erikson (1980) and Vaillant (1977) note that in the 16-25 age range, identity and self-concept are developing and that work is important to this process whilst Levinson (1978), Schein (1978) and Super (1987) identify socialisation and exploration at this age as important to future career success.

This literature suggests that young people do have the ability to make autonomous decisions but that identity and career development are influenced by sociological factors. Some decisions will be planned and others will be emergent.

Society: the Wider Context

A human society is a ‘group of people related to each other through persistent relations’ (Giddens, 1976). Human agency creates social structures and such agency is the medium of this construction. Giddens described this as ‘structuration’. In this structuration ‘rules are the procedures of action’ (Giddens, 1984). Rule-based complex social systems result, in which social structures influence and condition the actions and thinking of all group members.

Because Your People Matter

Identity, discussed previously, is a socially constructed concept. The group is on the one hand described by the identity of its members and on the other hand identity is how the individual sets themselves apart from the masses. Milgram (1974) noted that humans maintain a stable society by obeying those in authority; by conforming to society rules. And at the very point of identity development, young people are arguably at their most vulnerable to such societal pressure to conform.

Society communicates to develop and sustain its structures (Giddens, 1984). Societal discourse communicates social rules, practices and forms of knowledge that govern ‘what is knowable, sayable and doable’ (Foucault, 1977, 1988). Social structures help society hold together (social cohesion) but also risk ripping it apart through identity building (social division). Roberts (1997) noted that when relating such structures to career development, these rules and this division limit the choice of young people though their culture, social class, access to higher education, family ties and the degree to which they participate in this socialisation. Just when young people might operate as autonomous decision makers, society, it seems, has other plans. In challenging the idea that young people have choice, Roberts proposed replacing the concept of ‘occupational choice’ with ‘opportunity structure’ to account for the effect of society. Daws on the other hand (1997), and as a critic of Roberts, actively promoted the value of society’s discourse on careers education as an information source to effect social change.

Against this background of social structure and rules, several recent trends have promoted the individual as decision maker. Bimrose (2012) argues that social networks in post-modernity have shrunk. Firms and industries such as mining and fishing that once dominated local labour markets have broken up. Young people are more inclined to move location to continue studies and find work. There is increased instability in marriages and families. And neighbourhoods and communities have weakened.

Opposing this, recent developments of the Internet and social media are building hugely enhanced social networks (Hulme/YouthNet, 2009).

So individuals can and do behave as autonomous decision makers processing information from the society in which they live, are educated and work. But they are also significantly influenced by that society. Society has weakened in late post-modernity but its institutions have been replaced by arguably even more powerful mechanisms – the Internet and social media as sites of a new virtual society.

Exploring Societal Influence

Career development can be thought of as ‘upward mobility’. Paralleling the idea espoused above of duality in decisions, Turner (1960) proposed two systems by which upward mobility occurs – contest mobility and sponsored mobility. Contest mobility, analogous with individualism and autonomous decisions, suggests that young people achieve success through their own abilities whilst in contest with others. Sponsored mobility gives the idea of socialisation of the young person with elites in power with success coming though their help. Although these two perspectives are very different, they are not considered mutually exclusive (Rosenbaum, 1984; Wayne et al, 1999). Like decision making, individual action is mixed with societal pressure. What matters in sponsored mobility is to be noticed by these elites and this is in turn dependent on the young person’s skills, knowledge and experience, their socio-demographic status and their stable individual differences (such as personality) (Ng et al, 2005).

Because Your People Matter

Considering the measures of subjective and objective success established earlier, variables like skills, knowledge and educational level correlate moderately with salary whilst variables like social capital, pro-activity, locus of control and extroversion correlate moderately with career satisfaction (Ng et al, 2005). Success comes from the duality of individual capability (embodied in autonomous decision making) and social structures effecting social pressure. Young peoples’ careers develop through some balance of the two.

But how does societal pressure work?

Whilst the above theories of rule-following do explain much, there are also arguably parallels with change management and group dynamics. Kurt Lewin considered the present status (in a community) as maintained by an equilibrium of forces (Burnes, 2004). Any change in behaviour stems from changes in these forces (Lewin, 1947). So for a change in attitude to be effective in a young person, they would need to feel pressure from a new force or forces arising in the community. A new post-change equilibrium is then formed (Kippenberger, 1998). Group dynamics describes the forces operating within human social groups (Cartwright, 1951). The individual, who in isolation might progress in one direction, is constrained and their direction modified as a result of action by local forces (Schein, 1988). There is a useful analogy in Brownian motion and this has been used to model transfer of new technologies; a similar application of forces in a community (Padmanabhan & Souder, 1994). Applied to career development, a young person is released into society’s ‘chamber’ and collides with others. Their new post-collision speed and direction depends on the energy of these others. The result is that whilst a young person might set out with some personal intention, their eventual career path depends on subsequent social interaction.

Agent Versus Social Being

Agency theory (Milgram, 1974) helps us understand the degree to which a young person can, as agent, develop their own careers in their society. According to agency theory, the alternative to this autonomous action is the ability of that society to determine the young person’s career outcomes regardless of their own plans and desires. Autonomous outcome is the ‘temporal extension of agency through intentionality and forethought, self-regulation by self-reactive influence, and self-reflectiveness about one’s capabilities’ (Bandura, 2001). So agency needs society for reflectance. And society is built by agency. So whist one might think of these as opposites, neither exists alone.

Accepting existence of both, a young person’s career can therefore be somewhat emergent and socially influenced and somewhat planned and developmental; reality always contains the two.

So how does a young person becomes attracted to a career in the first place? Ajzen (1988) claims that behaviour (and hence action) depends on attitude. The answer lies perhaps in how the young person develops an attitude towards a career.

How a person builds that attitude and selects a career trajectory is perhaps explained by the trait-factor theories (Holland, 1959). A young person, processing information about a career from societal discourse, perhaps sees themselves fitting a particular job. To do this they must interact with the target career communities (Law, 1981). According to Holland (1959, 1997), best performance in role and greatest attractiveness of that role lies where there is congruence between job or career attributes (sensed from these communities) and personal characteristics. In effect the self-identity of the young person fits the community identity perceived in the organisation or career. Giddens (1991) suggested that self-identity is a ‘reflexive project’ where identity is socially constructed. Marrying trait-factor and self-identity concepts together perhaps explains how it is that many young people make several changes early in their career, even changing disciplines as their identity builds. Career development is a relational affair (Kram, 1996) involving learning and growth.

So how do these relationships occur? The answer is in networks of actors: the patterns of ties (Siebert et al, 2001) linking these young people with others of influence. Higgins & Kram (2001) saw this much like Turner’s social mobility. The young person can build a development network: a set of people that will take interest in them as protégé and who will sponsor their mobility. By so doing, the young person enhances their social capital.

Networks can be described by their diversity (the number of different social systems and the extent to which actors are connected within the networks) and strength (the emotional intensity, mutuality and frequency of communications between actors) (Granovetter, 1973). Linking to Turner’s ideas, sponsored mobility occurs when a person’s social network connects with others at higher levels. But in the same sense as society is described by division, Ibarra & Deshpande (2007) noted that career networks are contingent. Society is divided, constraining the links and hence constraining the options available to young people.

How does the wider social context affect career development of young people?

So how does the wider social context affect the career development of young people?

Firstly, one cannot separate the individual and society. The young person cannot develop their career without experiencing and reacting to societal influence. And neither is the young person’s career something that evolves at the whim of society’s pressures alone. The individual receives information from society and processes this to develop personal attitudes.

Secondly, wider society creates rules. Members of that society follow these rules to be ‘in’ the group. So if the young person has a weak personal attitude, society will easily force conformance, effectively limiting options and making decisions for the young person.

Thirdly, young people build networks. Recently network interaction has weakened as a result of structural changes in society. But through the advent of the Internet and social media, these weak networks have multiplied in coverage and number of connections. In principle therefore, young people in 2012 have a rich information source to mine, though they will also experience greater numbers of discrete pressures.

And fourthly, since pressures will be weaker, agency will potentially be more important, emphasising the need for young people to develop adequate career attitude.

In summary, society continually affects young people’s career development by opposing individual agency to yield new speed and direction of developmental action.

Recommendations for Future Research

Because Your People MatterThis paper has referred to significant research in psychology and sociology. It has positioned the actions of young people as they develop their career somewhere between autonomous, singular, cognitively-developed action and bowing to social pressure through interactions with others across groups and communities. Much of this research is recent (from the post-modern computer age) but none takes account of the enormous explosion in Internet connectivity and social media of the last five years or so. Cisco, a leading cloud computing and Internet data company, suggests that there will be a four-fold growth in data traffic in the coming years (Cisco, 2012). In a few minutes of elapsed time, young people in a physically social environment can simultaneously talk to present friends and reach out to hundreds of virtual others. The revolution in social networks is dramatically changing the way young people access, consume and process information and in the way young people are influenced. Hulme (2009) reports in a paper for YouthNet that young people are ‘digital natives’, confident and aware in online communities. They know how to use the Internet to stimulate action and hence it must arguably be that the Internet and social media are now the mechanisms for expression of agency and for social interaction.

There is therefore an urgent need for research to update previous work in light of this new phenomenon and to investigate new theories of career development considering this new Castellsian space of flows (Castells, 2000). In the nineteenth century, the pub was the place where everyone went to exchange stories and to get work (Clark, 1993). Now it’s the Cloud.

But all is not positive with today’s youth and their starts in careers. In the UK today around 18% of young people are not in education, employment or training. They are in a class of their own as officially ‘NEET’ (Dept. for Education, 2012). Yates & Payne (2006) suggest this is synonymous with social exclusion (though likely those affected will be just as socially active as most in the information age). Research is needed to better understand how it is that NEETs are socially excluded whilst still participating. Perhaps they don’t consider that work has desirable aspects (Warr, 2002) and select-out of career-related networks. This paper has assumed that all young people are like Brian and Helen: joining, reflecting, deciding and engaging. But many are like Joe, attempting to engage in one thing and another in a chaotic fashion. Research is needed to better understand change in the earlier years of a young person’s career and why it is that despite the apparent ubiquitous information of the Internet, Brownian motion prevails.

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