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and why
Professor Richard Sennett
should be a hero of careers work

For all I know Richard Sennett - the sociologist - is a descendant of Mack Sennett - the Hollywood Director. There is what could be a family likeness. Mack made us laugh at The Keystone Cops - in their day the cack-handed guardians of proper standards. They pursued Charlie Chaplin up, down and across the streets and alleys of 1920’s Hollywood. They were a scrambling and careering disaster area, forever tripping over their own ineptitude and crashing into their own contradictions.

Professor Richard Sennett also tells stories, his stories also have a point and their point also undermine the pretensions of guardians of what passes for contemporary standards - in particular standards at work.

Professor Richard Sennett is said to be one of the more important and original thinkers in the modern age. He teaches Sociology at the London School of Economics and New York University.

His book, The Corrosion of Character is particularly useful to careers work. Its central method is story-telling - NY stories of...

> a young and ambitious businessman, beginning to wonder about the future;
> a bar owner, trying to move on to something better;
> bakery workers, coping with the automation of their workplace; and
> a janitor who has seen more, and has learned to hope for less;
> executives, cast out by high-tech industry.

The stories are personal and disclosing. Richard Sennett has a quality that how-to-do-research textbooks will not teach you: he is plainly an engaging,comprehending and trusted listener.

And he is unhappy about what he hears. With a broad sweep of sociological and business-management thought, he constructs an account of contemporary work life which he says is corrosive. Contemporary working life hurts and damages people.

Take the experience of Rose, a 55 year-old one-time owner of a city bar. On what might seem a whim, Rose landed a job in a marketing company, working with a team tendering for a contract to promote Vodka. Pick up the story where things start seriously to go bad.

'Rose kept intruding information about how people actually drink in bars, which lay outside the purview of those who were in the loop. For instance, she mentioned that vodka is a drink of choice for people who are secret alcoholics, since they believe no one can smell they've been drinking. Her colleagues reacted as if this were her private knowledge, disturbing their own discussions.'

That was the beginning of the end for Rose. They thought she was out of touch! In the ensuing team work her colleagues by-passed her. They had no way of dealing with personal experience, they thought it an intrusion.

When the team failed to get the contract, Rose found it hard to understand why there was no review. People just moved on - seemingly untouched by their own experience.

Richard's explanation of what is going wrong is disturbing. He starts from the business use of 'networks', which can be rapidly assembled, dismantled and re-assembled to meet changing conditions. For this and other reasons, fewer of us ever really get to know other people at work - we are, no more, long-term witnesses to other people’s lives.

But that is not all. It is no longer helpful for us to try to understand how things work - we need only to know what to do to operate the process or mechanism. We are working on what we do from the outside. This is true of technology; but it is also true of human systems: Rose’s knowledge of people was not wanted because it would have required more than anyone could find time for. People see no need for in-depth understanding of problems. Difficulty is embarrassing; the team is there quickly to agree a solution. Mavericks are not wanted.

Working processes must, then, be superficial. They require 'skill' rather than 'understanding'. Richard argues, for example, that the skills of 'cooperation' are - too often - no more than a willingness to work with easy agreements. Any deeper and more sustainable account of reality may call up unwanted conflict.

Workplace team managers commonly use sports metaphors - prizing 'teams', 'competition' and 'winning'. But, Richard Sennett, blows the gaff: in the work game, he says, it may be unrealistic to rely on other players in your team - especially if things get rough or need the investment of sustained effort. There is an increasing chance that 'team members' won’t know enough, will want to avoid conflict, will be deterred by difficulty, and will probably feel that their current risk quotient is quite high enough. When things really get tough, you could be on your own.

'The Corrosion of Character' is pretty radical for a title. The author obvious means to warn us about something serious.

And it might be even more serious than he documents. He does not mention the possibility that the condition is seeping into schooling. But the too-easy talk of 'skills', 'competition' and 'employability' are, increasingly, part of the way we think about education. Targets, standards, performance indicators and other policing techniques use the same trite, superficial and banal language. At first site it might seem that careers work does well to identify itself with these trends - careers work is, after all, about pursuing ‘employability’. But there is accumulating evidence that the policing of education is corroding what is playful, exploratory and social in the experience of learning. What is being corroded is, of course, exactly the underpinning learning which enables children to develop a sustainable understanding of what they can do in their lives. Careers work should be no part of the corrosion of that part of our character.

Richard Sennett's take on working life is seriously different from that of the - ever-positive - Charles Handy. Careers workers who have, in the past, drawn upon Charles, should now give Richard a go. With thought, he may even persuade some of our own, more docile, people to stop trotting out the trite language of 'employable skills', with little regard for their meaning - either in the intentions of the pursuers or in their consequences for the pursued.

So what do we do? Richard Sennett knows better than to look for any return to some idyllic past. But we do need to know how to move on. And, in careers work, we must not reinforce the damage that Rose’s inept work-mates played in her disappointment. It will require a better-founded and more deeply-considered view of contemporary career management than we usually find among enthusiasts for contemporary standards - in the streets and alleys of careers work.

Knowing which way not to go is as important as anything else. Richard Sennett shows why it is not in the direction of the cack-handed custodians of facile standards.

Richard Sennett
The Corrosion of Character – the Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism
London: W W Norton
ISBN 0-393-31987-3 (pbk)

of the Career-learning Café
in 'a good read'

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an account of what careers work is and where it is going
conference ideas on the importance of narrative in careers

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