Ronald Sultana 5/2011

Career Guidance and the dangers of ‘responsibilisation’

Several social scientists have noted the changing nature of the state in the context of globalization (Bauman, 1998; Jessop, 2000). Negative globalization has simultaneously reduced the power of the state, while at the same time providing complex challenges that the state is ill-equipped to handle through the legal and institutional instruments that it has developed throughout its 200-year-old history. Due to multinational companies and supra-national entities, for instance, economic power has expanded to such a degree, and at such a cost to political power, that decisions affecting people’s life and welfare are made in contexts beyond democratic control.

In such a situation, and in many parts of the world, the state is reneging on its obligation to protect people against insecurity and the fear resulting from it. Instead, governments call for more flexibility in the labour market and in all other areas of life regulated by market forces. This means even more insecurity (Beck, 1992; Bauman, 2006). In its position of weakness, rather than accepting its responsibilities towards those who gave it its mandate, it disguises its dramatically reduced capacities and competences for responsible leadership by reframing state deficit and projecting it as personal deficit (Beck & Beck-Gernsheim, 2002)... you cannot have access to a decent and dignified way of life because you have not studied and trained hard enough, you have not learnt how to edit, package and market yourself so that you are attractive to employers, you are not entrepreneurial enough, and you have not converted to the Lifelong Learning Gospel (Grubb & Lazerson, 2004; Kuhn & Sultana, 2006) with sufficient fervour. The appeal to ‘responsibility’ is, as Beck (2006: 8) would say, “the cynicism with which the state and its institutions whitewash their own failure”.

This tendency towards ‘responsibilisation’ (Ball, 2008) of social issues is signalled in the guidance field by such terms as ‘career resilience’ and ‘career agility’, ‘portfolio careers’ and ‘boundaryless careers’—terms which are often used without sufficient critical reflection as to their implications. What we have here are processes of what Lash (2003) calls ‘insourcing’, or the reallocation of functions, activities and responsibilities to the individual that were previously regarded as primarily the responsibility of institutions and collectives (Watts, 1995). This ‘socially constructed autonomy’ (Beck & Beck-Gernsheim, 2002) helps highlight the resulting paradox, whereby what is expected of the individual in terms of adaptation to certain values is collectively defined, but the individual is then expected to respond to this individually.

Such a trend is particularly worrisome given a historical conjuncture when notions of social solidarity are being dramatically weakened. One response is precisely to ensure that individuals are not expected to assume greater individual responsibility without being offered appropriate support, particularly of a collective nature. Career guidance services, if embedded in a critical lifelong paradigm can be one form of such collective support. Without that critical edge, however, career guidance can serve to reinforce the ‘individualisation’ that personalizes structural problems.

The nature of the state’s response, i.e. whether it accepts it has some responsibilities towards the individual in these times, when living has become a risky business, or whether it abdicates such responsibilities, depends on the nature of the social contract it decides to enter into with those within its borders. And the nature of the social contract really depends on whether the state looks at us as client, user or customer of services on the one hand, or as citizens on the other.

Contracts with clients, customers or users are agreements that are essentially underpinned by a market logic, and are based on market principles: among others, such contracts raise issues of exchange (i.e. what do I, as the state, get in return for the service I offer?), value (i.e. should the service be at a fee, and if so, how much should I, as the state charge?), and access (i.e. is the service I offer equally accessible to all groups?). Customers, clients and users have rights, but often these are narrowly defined in terms of choice between competing services, the right to ‘walk away’ from a provider, and at best, the right to shape a service in ways that respond more closely to needs (Walsh, 1994; Clarke, 2007). The client, customer or user is interpellated by the state as a free-floating individual, who is invited to access services to maximize individual benefit, and the devil take the hindmost. Informed by the logic of the market, the state can withdraw its services and walk away too: from being a source of security, the state becomes yet another source of risk.

In contrast, a social contract between the state and citizens has a broader, more inclusive vision. It is about creating public debate on what is good for all society, and a recognition that there is no individual self-determination without social solidarity. In a social contract, the state more clearly and more honestly acknowledges its responsibilities towards its members, whom it recognises not as passive recipients of services that are lulled into dependency, but rather as active citizens, who are called to have an impact on matters that shape lives. In this social contract between state and citizens, there is an understanding that if the individual is obliged to walk a tightrope, then there must be a safety net to catch him or her when he or she falls. This is the least the state can do in the context of a society where risk and insecurity are increasingly present. Career guidance is part of that safety net—and as such is an entitlement of all citizens—but I would submit that it needs to be reconceptualised in ways that take into account the nature of the times, as an integral part of a reconceptualised state.


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Ronald G. Sultana,Director, Euro-Mediterranean Centre for Educational Research University of Malta, Euro-Mediterranean Centre for Educational Research