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Chequered patterns

By Jim Bright

Straight paths are more likely trod by male public servants.

Which of these paths best describes your career, or the one you aspire to? Have you worked for the same employer for the past 20 years, or hope to do so? Perhaps you have been continuously employed but with different employers for the past 20 years, or hope to be.

If either of those career patterns reflects your experience, you are most likely to be a man and very possibly employed in the public service, if the results of a recent study of more than 1000 people's career patterns is to be believed.

In a paper in The Journal of Vocational Behavior, researchers from the universities of Queensland, Cologne and Georgia looked at 1259 people's careers over the 20-year period 1984 to 2004. They were able to discern seven distinct career patterns.

The largest group, 31 per cent, had worked full time for several different employers. The second-biggest group, 25 per cent, had loyally worked for the same employer for two decades.

Combined, these patterns account for more than half the respondents, but less than 32 per cent of women enjoyed these career paths - men were twice as likely to have had uninterrupted employment. Public servants were also overrepresented in these employment paths.

What stands out is that full-time permanent employment barely scraped into the majority: 44 per cent of the sample had careers interrupted with unemployment or part-time work, or were self-employed part or full time. So jobs are not for life, and working for the same employer for 20 years is about as popular as federal Labor at the moment.

Despite these figures, there is still too great an emphasis on finding the "perfect" job or following your passion; indeed, even the idea of having a career may be questionable for almost half the population.
Boston academic David Blustein says we should be talking about working and jobs, not careers.

This data suggests that careers are overwhelmingly the privilege of educated men and public servants. Not only that, but younger people in the sample were less likely to have enjoyed these stable career patterns - recall that even the "younger" ones in this sample had 20 years of availability for work.

The next most common pattern was to start off working full time then go part time, with 16 per cent falling into this group. Not surprisingly, women were in the majority here. They were also in the majority in the predominantly part-time career pattern, and the fragmented career pattern that includes periods of unemployment.

So where are the services and schemes aimed specifically at women to assist them with their career paths that differ so much from those of their male counterparts?

How many of those women make positive choices to have such career patterns, and how many are suffering from discrimination or societal attitudes to women and work?

The self-employed were twice as likely to end up there following full-time employment (8 per cent), compared with those who were self-employed throughout (4 per cent). Collectively, they account for one in eight career paths.

We promote the idea of continuous employment in a career, yet this study reveals only two out of seven distinct career patterns conform to it. If the data is correct, we need to change our expectations of career - perhaps think in terms of jobs, assignments, gigs and projects - and do more to support the changes, transitions and interruptions almost half of all workers will experience.

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Published: 03 November 2012

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