Social Exclusion and Career Development: A United Kingdom Perspective

By Watts, A. G. | Australian Journal of Career Development, Autumn 2010 | Go to article overview

Social Exclusion and Career Development: A United Kingdom Perspective


Watts, A. G., Australian Journal of Career Development


Introduction

Career development has traditionally had a strong link with a concern for social equity and social justice. The origins of the vocational guidance movement in the United States of America were as contributing to a process of gradualist social reform, seeking to improve the work conditions of the poor (Brewer, 1942; Stephens, 1970). Much the same was the case in the United Kingdom (Peck, 2004). More recently, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in its analysis of policy goals related to career guidance (2004), identified social equity goals as one of the three main sets of such goals, alongside learning and labour market goals.

The concept of social exclusion potentially reinforces this tradition but also reframes it. As is currently the case in Australia, the concept has been given considerable political attention in recent years in the United Kingdom. In particular, it led to a major restructuring of careers services for young people, in the form of the Connexions service. An early analysis of this restructuring suggested that it provided a cautionary tale in terms of the application of the concept to career development services (Watts, 2001). The present article updates this analysis, in the hope that Australia and other countries might be able to learn from it.

The Concept of Social Exclusion

The concept of social exclusion was first used in France {['exclusion sociale), where it has been a focus of political debate since the 1960s (Silver, 1994). It has come to exercise a growing influence on social and economic policy within the European Union (e.g., European Commission, 1994). Within the United Kingdom, one of the first acts of the 'New Labour' government when it came to power in 1997 was to establish a Social Exclusion Unit within the Cabinet Office, to develop and promote a range of cross-departmental initiatives designed to tackle the issue.

Levitas (1998) has argued that the concept is subject to a number of different interpretations, embedded in three different discourses. The first is a redistributionist discourse, primarily focused on poverty, which draws on traditional left-wing concerns with reducing inequality. The second is a moral underclass discourse, centring on the moral and behavioural delinquency of the 'excluded' themselves, which draws on American right-wing analyses of the growth of an 'underclass' fostered by welfare dependency and moral irresponsibility (see Murray, 1990). The third is a social integrationist discourse, which focuses on participation in paid work as the key to social inclusion.

In an analysis of how these discourses were interwoven in United Kingdom political debates, Levitas noted that the dominant influence on New Labour government policy was the social integrationist discourse, with some moral underclass overtones. Concerns for distributional equality were marginalised. Instead, social inclusion was defined primarily in terms of participation in paid employment. This was viewed as the key to other social and economic goals, including reduction of crime and of welfare costs. Achieving such participation was seen as the moral responsibility of the individual: the right to work was replaced by the individual's duty to secure employment or, as a means to this end, to enhance his or her employability through, in particular, participation in education and training. The role of the state was to ensure that all had opportunities for participation in education, training or employment, and to encourage individuals to take advantage of such opportunities through a mixture of 'carrots' and 'sticks'.

Within this broad policy frame, particular attention was paid to young people who had dropped out of the formal education, training and employment system: the so-called 'NEET' group (not in education, employment or training). Many such young people suffer from multiple personal and social problems, including dysfunctional family backgrounds, personality and behavioural difficulties and experience of traumatic events (Stone, Cotton & Thomas, 2000). …

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