Academic journal article Nordic Journal of Working Life Studies

'Daring Leaps' Construction of Meaning and Individual Agency in Career Change Narratives in the Media

Academic journal article Nordic Journal of Working Life Studies

'Daring Leaps' Construction of Meaning and Individual Agency in Career Change Narratives in the Media

Article excerpt


Individual agency in constructing meaningful careers has become highly topical in work life research and policy-making (Eteläpelto et al. 2013). Faced with the uncertainties and changing work life conditions, individuals are increasingly expected to be able to practice agency, that is, to make, and act upon, their own choices. At the policy level, this individualization of careers has become evident in neoliberal economic policies. Such policies emphasize individual responsibility and enterprise, along with the deregulation of markets and limitation of the governmental role (Roper et al. 2010). The Nordic countries have not escaped this trend, although the Nordic model has fared fairly well despite the neoliberal context (Kasvio et al. 2012).

In research, this emphasis on individual agency has received interest across various disciplines, such as adult education (Billett 2006, Eteläpelto et al. 2013, Fenwick 2006) and sociology (Järvensivu 2010, Julkunen 2008, Sennett 1998). In careers research, agency has been highlighted in the conceptualizations of careers as boundaryless and protean (Arthur and Rousseau 1996, Hall 2004, Tams and Arthur 2010). Such approaches depict the changes in labor markets as offering more space for individual agency, self-expression, and career customization (Sullivan and Mainiero 2007, Valcour et al. 2007).

Yet, the possibilities for agency in careers continue to spur debate. Many critics have called attention to the overly individualistic views of careers and the limited possibilities to create meaningful careers (e.g., Arnold and Cohen 2008, Dyer and Humphries 2002, Pringle and Mallon 2003). In particular, they have questioned the taken-for-granted, neoliberal ideal of a self-reliant subject who is personally responsible for his/her success (Roper et al. 2010). Hence, there have been calls for more interdependent notions of career agency (Tams and Arthur 2010) and for more contextualized analyses of the broader influences in the construction of careers and agency (Roper et al. 2010).

In this paper, our purpose is to make visible how the media produces and reproduces understandings of careers and agency. Although media is a powerful storyteller, both mirroring and shaping cultural meanings and norms (Fairclough 1995), its influence in career and work life studies has been largely ignored. Drawing on a discourse theoretical framework, we examine how meaningful careers and agency are discursively constructed in narratives of career change in the popular press. Based on a narrative analysis of 23 popular and professional magazine and newspaper articles in Finland, we ask first how the narratives construct assumptions about meaningful careers. Second, we examine how career changers in these stories are represented and how the stories construct their agency discursively. In other words, we are interested in the type of agency these texts assign to career changers, and not the agency of these individuals per se.

We contribute to the literature on careers, and work life studies more broadly, by showing how the media discursively reproduces particular understandings of careers and individual agency. Specifically, we describe three types of career change narratives and show in detail how they construct meaningful careers by juxtaposing the past and present career in terms of setting, status, meaning, pace, and workload. In general, the narratives paint a picture of a trend away from hectic, abstract work in offices toward concrete, tangible work at a lower status and pace. Moreover, we demonstrate how these narratives position career changers as independent and self-reliant heroes taking "daring leaps." Hence, we argue that the media, while offering inspiring alternatives to meaningful careers, reproduces individualistic assumptions of agency and reinforces the dominant neoliberal ideal of responsible, autonomous subjects in careers.

In the following, we first discuss the theoretical basis of our work. …

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