Tags: #career #careerchoices #careercounselling #careertransition #employment #fulfillmeent #generations #greatresignation #jobquitting #meaningful #millenials #perspective #resignation #soulsearching #switch

Not just the Great Resignation: historical events always shape career choices.

Major events in history have always shaped the way people thought about their professional lives. The recent pandemic is blamed for starting a global trend of job quitting, which quickly became baptised the Great Resignation, but earlier generations of workers had lived their own game-changing moments that influenced their approach to work.

Going back to the early 1900’s, things seemed quite straightforward: you either followed your father’s trade and inherited his tools and workshop or moved to a big city or even across the ocean, to fill any of the available factory vacancies. People were coming to the market with little expectations, their skills were just matched to the available jobs, and they tried to stay employed for as long as they could. This was certainly the experience of immigrants arriving in big waves to the USA at the beginning of the 20th century and the workers moving from rural into urban areas at the same time.

When World War I started in 1914, the army was in demand of people with the right qualifications and capability. That is when the first structured programs for technical upskilling of staff emerged. After the war, vocational training and first career counselling programmes were developed to help the returning war veterans integrate into the workforce. This approach continued during the Great Depression; students were encouraged to stay longer in technical schools as a way of battling the unemployment.

Instead, the WWII pushed a lot of middle-class women into industry jobs, while men were fighting in military operations. The world needed qualified back-office staff to support the army and those had to be carefully selected and trained. The first assessment instruments appeared therefore in career counselling in the 1940’s and were further developed to help match veterans to the new jobs.

Fast forward to the 1960’s and 1970’s and the civil rights movement following the Vietnam War: the renewed commitment to social justice inspired many young people to claim and search for meaning in their work, challenging the status quo and their parents’ life choices. People from that generation are still in the workforce currently. Would they find resemblance to their own aspirations in the search for purpose and fulfilling career choices typical of the Millenials and Gen Z of today?

The technological development in the 1980s accelerated a high demand for technical skills in the workplace. Outplacement services flourished as laid off employees needed assistance to requalify and look for new jobs in the market. Job stability and predictable career choices became increasingly less assumed and internet-based companies grew exponentially. What followed, however, was the dot-com bubble of the late 1990s. It not only erased a lot of sizeable Internet-based companies from the market and caused unemployment amongst IT engineers. It also undermined the trust in IT and e-commerce and deterred school leavers from studying Information Technology.

More recently, the financial crisis of 2008 paved the way to the entry of disruptive, technology-powered “gig economy”. At the same time, many countries deferred the retirement age as pension funds could not keep up with the growing life expectancy.

These phenomena come together: less stable employment, technology revolutionising the future of work as some jobs expire and new ones come to market, people are expected to work longer, the concept of a job for life vanishing for good and the time to retirement has expanded. Career transition is therefore an assumption, and a necessity.

But career transition has a different angle to it in the 2020s and that is the pursuit of fulfillment.

In 2020, the world went into the lockdown. The daily commute became reduced to the distance separating the home-office chairs from the sofas and the entertainment left at the mercy of online streaming services. It did not take long for many to acknowledge the comfort of home-working, to enjoy the time spent in bed rather than in busy buses, and to question those hurried lifestyles of before.

A new search for meaning and purpose emerged as thousands of workers stayed at home, watching helplessly as hospitals were struggling with a shortage of qualified personnel. There was enough time to think. Some people took steps to start something new, others are waiting, appreciating their job security. In reality, the shock of the pandemic just accelerated what we felt long before it started: a lot of the job-related concerns, the search for purpose, the questioning of stress and pressures, the desire to serve the world and to live in harmony with one’s values.

We talked about it before 2020, the pandemic just put everything in the spotlight. Like other history events did, before.


Article contains references to Anita A. Neuer Colburm Career Counselling (2017) in D. Capuzi, & D.R. Gross (Eds), Introduction to the counseling profession, Routlege.

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