Research and Advances
Computing Applications

The End of Career

Ubiquitous computing is not only influencing our lives, but our livelihoods. Indeed, traditional career choices and paths will require fundamental attitude adjustments.
  1. Introduction
  2. The Transformation of Working Life in a Time of Ubiquitous Computing
  3. Responding to the New World of Work
  4. Entrepreneurship and the Wired Life
  5. Author
  6. Footnotes

When computers are taken for granted in our lives, other issues will become questionable or obsolete. A clear and inevitable example is the classic concept of a career. The traditional institution of "career" belongs to a world in which professional knowledge changes relatively slowly. In such circumstances it was feasible for people to make a one-time investment in themselves at the beginning of their working lives. With the accelerated change in knowledge and techniques that comes with ubiquitous computing, it is no longer feasible to think a working life will follow only one path. It is not that no one will have a career. Rather, the career will cease to be a feasible way to organize working life for the majority of people. As a result, many traditional institutions and policies—from schools through universities and pensions—need to be radically restructured.

Globalization and the ubiquity of information technology are two ways of referring to the same process. Globalization’s driving imperative is technological, not political. What we are going through today is another phase of a historical development clearly under way in the last third of the 19th century.

To be sure, globalization is our future but it is also our past. It certainly is not new. It goes back to the 1870s, when placement of underwater telegraph cables enabled Europe and the U.S. to be linked instantaneously for the first time. In 1873, news of a banking collapse in Vienna was transmitted instantly to New York and affected its markets. Globalization goes back quite awhile. If we understand it in this way—technologically driven, interlinking or interconnecting activities throughout the world—then we can see its effects will always be rather paradoxical. They won’t be consistently good or bad. They will always be surprising and doubled-edged.

One of the main things I’ve been trying to do is discredit the notion that globalization is a new phenomenon. The technology may be new and quantitatively different, but the process itself isn’t wholly novel. It should not be confused with other things. When people think of globalization they think of the worldwide mobility of capital or deregulation or political events like the failure of communism. In other words, they identify it with something like a global-free market. When we look back to the 19th century and realize this process went on for the entire 20th century, we understand it’s not to be identified with any particular regime or economic system. It will go on inexorably with all of the possibilities of emancipation and progress that it entails as well as the possibilities of risk and instability that it entails. It will go on throughout new regimes and new institutions.

Entrepreneurship is not a status to enjoy; it is an attitude to have. And it is an attitude that nearly everyone will need.

In other words, even if our present global economic regime were to change, collapse, mutate, or evolve into something else, globalization will continue as it did in the past.

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The Transformation of Working Life in a Time of Ubiquitous Computing

A critical issue is how working life will be organized. The very nature of the psychological and moral organization of work into jobs and careers is changing as a result of the new technologies. While these effects cannot be statistically measured yet, there are some areas where they are already apparent. For example, in banking and many service industries new technologies can perform tasks more cheaply and more quickly than humans.

The primary changes are occurring more subtly. It’s not that, as a result of technological progress, people are coping with a working life in which they have five or six main jobs in a working lifetime, instead of three or four. It’s rather that it’s less reasonable now for anyone entering working life to assume they will be in the same occupation or vocation for their entire working life. In other words, it is not that teachers will have six different jobs as a teacher, when 30 or 40 years ago they might have had three or four jobs as a teacher. It’s that by constantly revolutionizing the stock of knowledge and by changing the way in which knowledge is used, the continuous process of technological development is removing the traditional institution of the career from many peoples’ lives. This process is immensely liberating, but also imposes a task of adjustment that most people, even most young people, have not yet made.

The traditional institution of a career is not that old. It probably arose in the late 18th or 19th century. The arrangements built around a career—pensions and laws about saving and taxation—were modeled on a notion of working life in which people made an initial investment in skills and knowledge in early adulthood. They develop those skills over a working lifetime in which, if they are lucky and reasonably competent, they could assume the progress of their career would follow a track similar to biological aging.

I think that scenario is disappearing because aspirations are changing. There are new types of working lives: entrepreneurship, and what I call the "wired life" in which people do not derive fulfillment from a lifelong career. They would perceive a lifelong career as a constraint, a form of being stuck or trapped. What they derive meaning from is a form of working life in which they start and develop enterprises or found new projects and then move on. I think the traditional career—embodied in all kinds of institutions and practices like taxation and pensions and so forth, and embedded in education—is decreasingly viable in terms of the continuous technological change we are now undergoing and in terms of the aspirations of most people.

There is a caveat to all of this, however. Should a significant setback in the economy occur, I would anticipate the natural human response would be to covet old-fashioned careers in big industrial organizations for awhile; and the new form of working life organized around entrepreneurships and projects would be stunted in its development. Still, I still think entrepreneurs will eventually prevail as the working life for a great many people because the technological changes and developments are quite inexorable. Also, people are far less willing to commit to a single line of activity throughout their working life simply because they live much longer and healthier lives.

The word "career" means a pathway, like a carriage going down a particular road to its destination. A person has a career when he or she has a single vocation or occupation; a woman trains in law school and becomes a lawyer for the rest of her working life, or a man trains and remains a teacher throughout his livelihood. Indeed, a career is that pattern of working life in which, as a result of decisions made in early maturity, an investment is made in a series of skills and professional knowledge for the purpose of remaining in that occupation.

There is also expectation of progression in a career. If you have reasonable luck and competence then you can expect to make progress and achieve advancement or seniority in the career over time, even though you may have worked in several different organizations. At the end of your career, you will have made a kind of linear progress.

A very important point is the notion that having a career as a lifelong occupational profession not only gives you a steady source of income, it also gives you a stable identity. This concept is certainly true in European countries, such as Germany or France. When you are introduced to someone, it’s typically by occupation as a doctor, a lawyer, a soldier, a teacher. If one goes back to the great 19th century social theorists like Emil Durkheim or Max Weber one finds the division of labor falls into fairly stable occupations; with their associated tasks and identities, was a core element in both psychological stability and social cohesion. So, if change in working lives takes place in the coming century—and we already see signs it will—it will no doubt be a tremendous transformation.

If you ask young people what they want from their working lives, most will still say a career. Some would talk about setting up jobs, becoming entrepreneurs, or creating valuable projects, but I don’t get the impression these aspirations are in the majority yet. Still, if these changes are afoot, young people will need to adapt to a world in which the expectations of a traditional career are no longer realistic.

I’m reminded of a book by sociologist (and economic expert) Richard Sennet entitled Corrosion of Character. The book is based on conversations with mid-ranking executives, mainly from aircraft companies like Boeing, who were faced with adjusting to life after being laid off in their 40s or early 50s. Their whole set of expectations about a career had been completely turned upside down and would not be resumed because, even though many of them did generate new forms of working lives, they were quite different from their previous jobs. The evanescence of career doesn’t mean job insecurity. It doesn’t mean having more jobs or less secure jobs. It means a situation in which the initial commitment to a single occupation or vocation is cut off due to downsizing or delayering or some new technological change.

If people have derived a sense of identity from a career, if their aspirations have been wrapped up in this institution of a career, and if those aspirations become less reasonable, how do you find a different way to find work meaningful? Sennet’s book is important and useful because it shows the psychological reorientation that occurs when middle-aged professionals, whose sense of self-esteem is rooted in careers, no longer have those careers available to them.

Consider, then, the young person who hasn’t started out yet. Educational institutions, schools, and universities are still too narrowly oriented around the concept and the promises built up in the notion of a career. The best advice one can give to a young person today is not to invest the meaning of their future lives in a single track throughout the world of work, but rather to view work as an instrument of self-development and personal autonomy. That is to say, not to suppose the career path is going to be available or even terribly fulfilling.

Students in their early 20s emerging from colleges today are likely to live a much healthier and longer life than their predecessors. They might be fully fit and capable of working well into their 70s or even 80s. The notion that a working life should be packaged into 30 or 40 years between school and retirement—indeed, the idea there is a fixed set of parameters separating education from work and work from retirement—may seem constricting and constraining.

Think of all the ways people vary their working lives today. Some people downshift, making a voluntary winning decision to trade off some income in a career that has become too stressful in order to live in a different way. If you wanted to think in traditional terms, it’s a form of semi-retirement. Still, many professionals downshift in their 40s and take up a variety of unrelated activities. They become portfolio workers or they devote half of their time to charitable organizations. They live off investments and find work when they need to raise some income. Given a further increase in longevity and health, we should be thinking of a working life as 50 or 60 years and far more varied than in the past.

Ironically, if you ask young people whether they expect to remain married to the same person throughout their entire lives, I suspect a majority would say "no." And yet, if you ask the same people if they expected to remain in the same occupation or career throughout their lives, I suspect more would say "yes."

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Responding to the New World of Work

I think it is an absolute mistake to lament the disappearance of the traditional world of work. Sure, one has sympathy for the employees laid off in mid-life, but we should focus on the younger generation, the world they will live in, and the attitudes and perspectives they must adopt in order to flourish and thrive. I think they should see work as a much more fluid, variable, miscellaneous, punctuated, variegated set of activities. That will require more flexibility in terms of institutions, taxation, and all kinds of policies, for example, the pension.

The best advice one can give a young person now is not to invest the meaning of their future lives in a single track throughout the world of work, but rather to view work as an instrument of self-development and personal autonomy.

I believe the pension, as we perceive it, was first institutionalized in the time of Bismark, toward the end of the 19th century with industrialism under way in countries like Britain, the U.S., and Germany. It was based on the idea that people worked 30 or 40 years. Employees save for a pension, perhaps mandatory at that time, obliged by the state or government. They took the pension, did nothing for a few years, then died.

Today, we don’t retire from full-time work, to 3–5 years of retirement, then die. There are many intermediary stages between full-time work and full-retirement and, indeed, the terms are not as meaningful as they once were. Therefore, one could argue the tax privileges extended to pensions should be broadened to cover all kinds of lifetime savings. Pension shouldn’t be something you start saving in your 20s only to enjoy in your 60s. In Britain, for example, workers must buy a pension annuity upon retirement. They must spend a certain proportion—in this case 75% of their pension savings—on an annuity and are not allowed to touch it until then. The notion of making a sudden quantum shift from full-time work to no work is completely unrealistic for the working majority. All those arrangements must be greatly reformed. But the precondition is we recognize the change is inevitable.

Young people just beginning their working life can prepare for this shift by increasing their multipurpose skills. By "multipurpose" I mean the intellectual and social skills of communication—being able to formulate and express ideas, think clearly and coherently, negotiate social contacts, and have as much computer literacy as possible.

Paradoxically, this new work world makes certain types of specialized knowledge even more valuable, but it makes typical vocational education less valuable. It’s vitally important to keep one’s skills of communication and clarity alive, along with skills of rigor and analysis, and the capacity for alertness and acuity of perception. For example, very few people (indeed, only those in elite occupations) are taught the art of negotiation. Diplomats, certain types of conflict mediators, people who go into certain branches of law learn how to negotiate. Politicians are taught skills of speaking and presenting themselves—sometimes with rather perverse results. Most people, however, are not that fortunate. I would suggest these skills be taught on a much wider scale.

At a time when specialized knowledge is more important, but also quickly obsolete, the basic intellectual cognitive skills and social skills should be adopted. A traditional liberal education of the sort that is still provided magnificently in some U.S. colleges and universities is more valuable. If I were a young person today living in the U.S., I would not specialize in law or medicine or financial services. I’d look for the best available liberal education I could get my hands on at one of the great liberal arts colleges; a broad and modern education rich in history and literature, with some logic and philosophy of science. I’d seek that broad-based education instead of a narrowly specialized one. Such education would see me through my life and would give me much wider points of reference. The working life of most young people will be more miscellaneous than they can probably imagine.

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Entrepreneurship and the Wired Life

Working life is evolving in two different strands—the wired life and entrepreneurship. These strands have some things in common, but they are different in the wake of a career. The wired life, as I mentioned earlier, does not revolve around a career, instead there is just a stack of projects organized around teams or networks.1 Though the projects can be fleeting, the person who is engaged in this type of life pursues it with excitement, inspiration, and openness to the challenges and demands of the moment. They might also seek high monetary rewards, but they are not alone there. That’s not its defining characteristic. You find such people in the media, or in new and creative industries. Indeed, the wired life involves people who choose a form of working life whose animating virtues view a lifelong commitment to a particular line of duty as a form of entrapment or renunciation.

The wired life is a radicalization of the notion of autonomy, in which an autonomous life is seen as a succession of different episodes, activities, or projects. The value of that working life is not its consistency or continuity, but rather its variety, its spontaneity, its responsiveness to the moment. I don’t just mean busy partners or workers who move from team to team or activity to activity. I mean a form of life wrapped in a set of virtues and values that have matured in the wake of the career.

By entrepreneurship, I mean something different. In the real world you find people with varied careers, short careers, partial careers, or mini-careers who are drawn toward project work and who may have entrepreneurial leanings. The entrepreneurship I refer to has a stronger element of commitment. An entrepreneur may have a considerable loyalty to the enterprise he or she is seeking to found and develop. They may see the enterprise as having a particular place in the history of a community or institution or organization. They may commit themselves for long periods to the development of that organization. That loyalty does not mean they necessarily see themselves working in that organization for a lifetime. The goal is to make lasting changes in the life of an organization or community or locality by building something that wasn’t there before, by reconciling conflicts that were once unresolved, by meeting demands once unsatisfied.

To me, entrepreneurship involves virtues of commitment and relationship building, as well as a sense of community and history, which is lacking in the wired life. I don’t mean to disparage the wired life, but I can’t imagine a society in which the working life of everyone is the wired life. I think, at the very least, it would be fractured. However, one can envision entrepreneurship, or an entrepreneurial approach to working life, as being of benefit to most people.

Entrepreneurs could be people who create new Web sites, develop new technologies, or like Ben and Jerry, create a new kind of ice cream. An entrepreneur is anyone who produces or contributes a new product or new service or new way of working. An entrepreneur recognizes how to meet a need once unrecognized or unfulfilled.

I do not suggest that people who consider themselves, say, teachers should be proactive in looking for new or better jobs as a teacher. I mean the sort of skills a person uses by being a teacher should be considered as skills usable in a variety of new contexts and opportunities—some of which do not even exist yet. My main extension of the idea of entrepreneurship is the idea that people should be entrepreneurial about the development of their own skills and about their working life as a whole. Entrepreneurship is not a status to enjoy; it is an attitude to have. And it is an attitude that nearly everyone will need.

Ubiquitous computing changes working life, and it does so in ways more subtle and radical than commonly perceived. It makes some of the traditional institutions in which work has been packaged redundant. As ubiquitous computing continuously transforms the stock of knowledge, so does it make many of the practices we have inherited from the past less workable. Pensions, schools, and universities will need to be transfigured, but so far it seems little is understood about this vision. We continue to organize education around preparation for careers instead of inculcating entrepreneurial attitudes and skills. We are schooling young people to work in the past. We talk constantly of the need for new thinking to prepare for the future, but it seems we are far from understanding the present.

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    1This idea was developed in a pamphlet I co-authored with Fernando Flores, former Minister of Finance in Chile, and founder of Business Design Associates in California.

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