A Professional Life: A Question of Stages?

Emma Arrington Stone Young

A Professional Life in Stages

On September 15, 2015, Joseph Coleman spoke at the Poynter Center about his new book, Unfinished Work: The Struggle to Build an Aging American Workforce. Through personal interviews with dozens of subjects in the USA, Netherlands, France, and Japan, Coleman explores how these individuals and their nations are handling the world-wide boom in older workers.

Of the many interesting topics that arise – the long-lasting effects of the Great Recession, employer strategies, worker motivations, and who’s ultimately responsible for what – one that especially caught my attention was the notion that we might want to be thinking about professional working life as a series of stages rather than a single stage preceded by education and followed by retirement. Sweden has been relatively successful at creating social programs that re-train and re-employ middle-aged and older workers in new sectors after layoffs, Coleman says, suggesting that there might be benefits if industry and government more deliberately plan for workers to phase out of one industry and in to another.

It’s easy to think of benefits: At the individual level, workers may have new capacities to offer after children are raised, or may find more personal fulfillment in having more than one career. But it could work for industry too: Mid-life transitions from more to less physically demanding jobs might improve the overall health of the labor pool, and workers might bring more value as a fresh perspective in a new sector than by continually updating their training in the same sector. And in the broadest perspective, strategic programs to offer older workers the chance to renew themselves with a beneficial career change could, when needed, open up jobs for young workers (as when there is an over-supply of recent college graduates) and develop economic opportunities based on the unique strengths of older workers.

Of course, the notion of working life as a single stage between education and retirement only applies to certain relatively high-status occupations in the first place – professions and “skilled” trades. It has long been relatively easy to make career changes among certain kinds of occupation: it would startle no one to hear of a single career that included stints in law, politics, business, and academia. It isn’t clear whether transitions between “professional” and “non-professional” jobs could be as easily accomplished. In the US at least, access to professional careers and their accompanying class status is most often determined before the age of thirty, and in general the high cost of licensure and the pressures of class status maintenance are potential roadblocks.

On the other hand, workers in midlife may in some ways be the ideal candidates to take on the complex moral reasoning involved in professional life, as well as the pragmatic hurdles of advanced degree programs, even if their first career was not considered professional. Several decades of cultural pressure to professionalize young has produced an enormous problem: a glut of young workers with advanced degrees, few opportunities, and little experience. So a thoughtful shift toward encouraging more workers to consider professional careers after gaining life experience in jobs considered blue, white, or pink collar, or years of working in the home, might actually have some far-reaching effects: At a large enough scale, it would certainly change the demographics of degree programs and alter the stock narrative of status attainment. And it might create a new kind of professional. It’s certainly a provocative notion.


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