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Why have a career?

Updated: Nov 1

A 'minimal trust' investigation which explores whether career progression is actually beneficial for people's economic stability, health and wellbeing.




From a young age, I (I'm sure, alongside a majority people from the UK and globally) have felt the need to pursue a 'career.' That is, I've felt a compulsion to pick a profession, work hard to advance through the ranks, and keep working until retirement age (ish). Sure, I could pick multiple occupations - I could even switch professions, or take a career break. But no matter what, there would be a sense of steady, logical, work-related progression. It's so commonplace to speak of having a career (think for example of the oft-used interview question, 'what are your career ambitions?'), to think of having a career (hello, ubiquitous careers services) or to actually have a career.


Some organisations also place a hefty emphasis on the importance of a career - whether that be for personal fulfilment, or (per 80,000 Hours), because it is your best opportunity to have a positive impact on the world. However, I've often pondered (but frankly, been too embarrassed to ask) whether we should have careers in the first place - and if so, why? So, I figured that there was no better time to explore the question of why/ whether we should have a career/ careers, than in response to The Blog Prize - Post Prize #5.


A 'minimal trust' investigation



This blog post follows the style of a 'minimal trust' investigation (herein, MTI). Simply put:


The basic idea of a minimal-trust investigation is suspending one's trust in others' judgments and trying to understand the case for and against some claim oneself, ideally to the point where one can (within the narrow slice one has investigated) keep up with experts.

What does that look like in practice? Mostly, it is about digging deeply into claims - for example by 'tracking down and reading all the way through the original studies.' Karnofsky describes how he would 'generally expect them [that is, minimal trust investigations] to involve a combination of "trying to understand or build things from the ground up" and "considering multiple opposing points of view and tracing disagreements back to primary sources, objective evidence, etc."


To me, this feels a bit like a university essay-style endeavour. That is, in order to get top marks you would want to ensure that your essay contains a high level of critical analysis. That critical analysis would often come in the form of questioning assumptions, of tracing disagreements back to the source (and questioning that source/ those sources), teasing apart available evidence, and then analysing the standards of that evidence. So, that is what I have sought to do here.


It is important to note too, that my focus in this post is on individual people - and why a career might/ might not be beneficial to them. There are of course a plethora of reasons why careers are beneficial to countries, governments and organisations (e.g., for economic growth) - but, we're not covering that here. Likewise, I have chosen to briefly hone in on 2 of the most common rationales for having a career (financial security, and a health & wellbeing benefit), but that is not to say that there are not many more - the potential to contribute to humanity being a key one.


What is a career?




First, let's cover the basics. What - I hear you ask - is a 'career', and is it the same or different from having a 'job? As with so much in life, there is no firm consensus on this amongst interested commentators. Indeed, the terms are often conflated and/or used interchangeably. Broadly though, people tend to think about the two temporally. That is, a career is often viewed as a longer-term endeavour, and a job as a shorter-term one:


In everyday conversation, the term ‘career’ is generally understood to refer to the sequence of work-related experiences one has over the course of one's working lifetime. For many people, a career is distinct from a job, since it also conjures up images of steady, even logical, progression up organizational hierarchies. It is not simply about what one does for a living, but about what one has done, does now and might do in the future; the notion of career therefore embraces the dimension of time.

However, experts have also noted that both individuals and organisations are 'finding it increasingly difficult to conceptualise the idea of a logical, long-term sequence of work-related experiences', and as such there is 'no longer a clear and mutual understanding of what the career means to both'.


There also appears to be more to it than temporality. For example, academics from the US asked 196 employees from across two work sites (with a wide range of occupations from clerical to professional) how they related to their work. They found that:


Most people see their work as either a Job (focus on financial rewards and necessity rather than pleasure or fulfilment; not a major positive part of life), a Career (focus on advancement), or a Calling (focus on enjoyment of fulfilling, socially useful work).

So, it appears that whether an occupation is considered to be work/a job/a calling is a) subjective, and b) partly a measure of people's satisfaction with their role. In this post, I will try to focus on a career as being both a long-term endeavour and (interrelatedly), a focus on advancement. However, doing so also inevitably requires an analysis of jobs/ work more generally.


Unemployment for all, not just the rich!


Call it what you will (job/ career/ calling), that people should take on employment during their lifetime is a substantial assumption in most modern societies - both an explicit and an explicit one. Think for example, about the ubiquity of careers services (at least from my experience in the UK) - whether in high schools, universities, or nationwide. Within Effective Altruism (EA) as well, there is a substantial (and commendable) focus on how to make a difference with your career, because it is recognised that how you allocate your time can help to determine how best to help solve the world's most pressing problems. Work/ life balance - that is, the intersection of work and personal life - is also a big preoccupation of societies, such that it is both a commonly uttered refrain ('this job gives me zero work-life balance - I just want to go and see the latest Marvel film without getting called back in!') and e.g., the focus of mental health charities.


From the academic articles/ journals (e.g., in sociology, economics, psychology) I've perused for this MTI, it seems that there is no substantial push-back to this assumption from experts. For example, I've not yet come across any papers which argue that a job/career/ calling should not be pursued. However, there is a broader online movement - dubbed 'antiwork' - in which a (not unsubstantial) number of people set out arguments in favour of ditching the human preoccupation with work.


The main hub of activity for anti-workers is a subreddit group with 2.3 million subscribers 'for those who want to end work, are curious about ending work, want to get the most out of a work-free life, want more information on anti-work ideas and want personal help with their own jobs/work-related struggles' [on a side note, it is worth commenting that this particular subreddit went viral at the start of 2022 for being the subject of an uncomfortable 'Fox News ambush'].


Apparently, the tradition of 'antiwork' is not a new one though - but is one that 'stretches back to the writings of Karl Marx’s son-in-law Paul LaFargue, through to more recent writings by Bob Black, André Gorz, Kathi Weeks and David Frayne'.



The case for having a career


Let's first consider the case(s) in favour of people focusing on workplace advancement in the longterm (e.g., over the course of their lifetime). Predominantly, commentary around this has taken place informally online (i.e., on careers websites, in blog posts, on LinkedIn, etc.) rather than e.g., in academic journals. The case for having a career also seems to largely be uncontroversial. That is (aside from the 'antiwork' movement), there is not much dialogue around/ pushback on/ discussion around the assumption that people should pursue a career(/careers). Therefore, the 'cases' for having a career presented below are a collation of commonly presented, but informal views. However, the MTI that follows focuses on more rigorous sources of evidence.


Claim 1: careers provide financial security and increase earning potential


A number of online sources report that having a career provides long-term financial security. For example, the College of West Anglia argues that in contrast to the steady paycheque provided in the short-term by a job, a career provides financial stability by encouraging people to build on their skills and continue learning in order to move up the career ladder:


A career increases the likelihood that you’ll earn higher pay and better benefits. You’ll be of greater value to employers as you progress in your career, and you’ll be rewarded accordingly.

This sentiment is reflected across the web. See for example, here, here and here.


MTI: does career progression impact financial stability?


My main finding was this:


  1. There is no clear data linking having a career with better long-term financial stability, but there are some mixed indicators.


As noted by academic researchers, investigating individuals’ sequences of occupations and identifying suitable patterns is a complex task. That is because most research focuses on single time-points, single jobs and single transitions and only few longitudinal studies have investigated career paths over a long period of time. Of those studies, few are recent, all are job/ country-specific, and most are not linked to quantifiable/ economic data.


Official statistics, such as from the ONS, provide some insight into the economic repercussions for job leavers and job 'stayers.' For example, we are shown that job stayers on average earn a higher hourly wage compared with those who change jobs; however, workers who switch jobs experience higher pay growth compared with those who do not. However, this data is not longitudinal - and does not really give us a good understanding of careers and career progression over time.


Overall, there appears to be no conclusive (or even compelling) evidence to suggest that having a career (e.g., vs having or not having a 'job') is economically beneficial in the long run. This in part seems to stem from methodological barriers to research - longitudinal studies are notoriously difficult (attrition rates) and expensive (because... they're long).


Claim 2: careers provide 'meaning' and contribute to good health and wellbeing



One of the most ubiquitous arguments in support of having a career, is that it is transcends financial considerations - in that a career provides a sense of purpose or meaning, that a fulfilling career can lead to increased overall happiness, and that it can contribute to overall health and wellbeing. Personal experiences of this are often recounted online, for example from this Quora user:


I never had a career. I had a vocation. It gave me meaning, and a feeling I was contributing to society. I was a part of something larger than myself, and I made a difference. I provided for my family. I grew.

MTI: does career progression impact health and wellbeing?


So, I did a bit of a deep-dive into available evidence. These were my main findings:


  1. Evidence suggests that country-level economic security does impact wellbeing. However, we lack information linking career progression, individual's financial security, and personal health and wellbeing to each other.


For example, a 2004 study by the International Labour Office (ILO) found that economic security strengthens tolerance and happiness as well as growth and development. This report provides estimates from countries representing more than 85% of the world's population, and was based on 'detailed household and workplace surveys covering over 48,000 workers and more than 10,000 workplaces worldwide'.


However, it is key to note here that it is the economic stability of the country (as opposed to the individual), coupled with democracy and government spending on social security which promoted personal well being, happiness and tolerance.


Trying to assess whether the economic security of having a career (or career progression) impacts an individual's health and wellbeing is actually very difficult. That's because many of the studies that have been carried out are 1) single studies (i.e. not systematic reviews or meta analyses, 2) not that recent, 3) self reported (e.g., solely using questionnaires, and 4) very specific. For example, studies over focus on specific occupations in specific locations, such as examining the career stages, satisfaction and wellbeing among police officers in the UK, or looking at working-class men and wellbeing in contemporary Russia.


2. There is very mixed evidence on the effect of job promotion and career progression on health and wellbeing.


In 2019, What Works Wellbeing (WWW) - the UK's independent body for wellbeing evidence, policy and practice (and who's aim it is to accelerate research and democratise access to wellbeing evidence) - issued a report titled 'do all job changes increase wellbeing? Their analysis focuses on different types of job transitions, how they impact wellbeing, and which ones lead to the greatest wellbeing changes. Secondly, in 2018 they issued a report on Progression and Job Security, which draws evidence from a systematic review of 17 different studies to assess how getting promoted, and other forms of in-work progression, impact our wellbeing:



The 17 studies included in WWW's report examining job changes and personal wellbeing.


The study carried out by WWW looks robust - and the way that they have assessed their underlying evidence (e.g., quantitative vs qualitative, strong vs promising vs initial, etc) is very helpful. I couldn't find a source (e.g., academic paper) which describes their methodology for conducting the systematic review though. This makes it tough to assess how they arrived at the 17 studies they did, although they do briefly mention in their report that 7,927 studies were sifted (exactly how they were sifted, I could not tell you). They have however published a general paper describing in detail their evidence review methods.


The main findings that can be taken from the report are that:


  • Promotions can lead to improvements in job satisfaction in the short-term, but the positive effect fades over time.

  • There is mixed evidence on the immediate effects of promotions on mental health: in the longer-term there is a possibility that promotions are associated with poorer mental health.

  • Overall, having a job with career prospects can make an important contribution to a person’s wellbeing.

  • Some forms of insecure or temporary employment are associated with poorer wellbeing, and;

  • Moving into permanent employment may not produce better wellbeing outcomes when compared to temporary work. Where there are improvements, these are mainly driven by greater satisfaction with job security.



Therefore, is appears that it is not clear-cut to speak of having [fulfilling] careers, or seeking career progression, as being unequivocally beneficial for health and wellbeing. Figure 1 for example, shows how the effects of promotion on job satisfaction and attributes (such as stress, control and security) can decline over time.


Conclusions


The key thing that I would like you to take from this MTI is to not take things at face-value. There is a hugely popular rhetoric (mostly online, but also in print) from a number of different sources, that equates having a career with 1) economic security, and 2) personal good health/ wellbeing/ happiness/ satisfaction. This post is a fairly brief deep-dive into these claims. However, what I have found in my brief investigation is that evidence suggests that when the above claims have been examined empirically, results are actually mixed. There are a number of factors which can affect people's financial stability and wellbeing - both external factors, and those related to choice of career and career progression.


That is not to say that having a career is a bad thing - there may be a number of important benefits both to an individual and to humanity, of choosing a long-term, fulfilling occupation. However, the reasons for choosing to do so might not be as simple as they are often presented to be.



About Me


I am currently a DPhil student in Psychiatry at the University of Oxford. If so inclined, you can read a little more about me here, here and here. In summary though, I am relatively new to the (also relatively new) fields of EA and longtermism - having taken an interest in them a year or so ago following a summer fellowship in legal longtermism. I am now slowly working my way through the corpus of existing literature, and figuring out where is best to direct my attention & efforts going forwards.




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