Are You Sure? the Role of Uncertainty in Career

By Trevor-Roberts, Edwin | Journal of Employment Counseling, September 2006 | Go to article overview

Are You Sure? the Role of Uncertainty in Career


Trevor-Roberts, Edwin, Journal of Employment Counseling


Although uncertainty is a fundamental human experience, professionals in the career field have largely overlooked the role that it plays in people's careers. The changed nature of careers has resulted in people experiencing increased uncertainty in their career that is beyond the uncertainty experienced in their job. The author explores the role of uncertainty in people's experience of their careers and examines the implications for career counseling theory and practice. A review of the career theory and career counseling literature indicates that although contemporary approaches have been offered to respond to the changed nature of career, none of the approaches have identified uncertainty as a core part of individuals' experience of their career. The broader literature on uncertainty is then reviewed at the societal, organizational, and individual levels.

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The central thesis of this article is that uncertainty is a fundamental experience of their career that affects people's vocational behaviors, attitudes, and emotions. An understanding of how uncertainty influences people's experience of their career may lead to career theories that are more in tune with the inherent instability of career and more targeted toward effective counseling interventions that help people make the most of their working life. The motivation for proposing uncertainty as a central feature of an individual's career is that rapid changes in the labor market have caused increased uncertainty and instability in people's careers (Burke & Cooper, 2002). These changes are evident, for example, in the changed nature of production (Langlois, 2003), the rise of knowledge work (Pazy, 2003; Tarique & Lazarova, 2003), and increased alternative employment arrangements (Kunda, Barley, & Evans, 2002; Theodore & Peck, 2002). It is within this context that feelings of uncertainty have arisen beyond traditional conceptualizations of job insecurity (Greenhalgh & Rosenblatt, 1984; Sverke & Hellgren, 2002).

Uncertainty does not exist simply within people's experience of their career; rather, it is a central experience of living. Researchers have focused their studies at the societal (Hofstede, 1980, 2001; Sully de Luque & Javidan, 2004), organizational (Cyert & March, 1963; Teboul, 1994), and individual (Babrow, Kasch, & Ford, 1998; Bradac, 2001; Kramer, 1999) levels. Moreover, uncertainty is ubiquitous. In almost every situation, there is some level of uncertainty: Will I arrive on time? Will I have a stressful day? At the individual level, however, the greatest feelings of uncertainty are most often experienced when making major decisions, such as selecting a life partner, buying a house, or choosing a vocation (Sully de Luque & Javidan, 2004). As Sully deLuque and her colleagues suggested, it is the desire to reduce uncertainty that motivates many human endeavors, such as furthering scientific knowledge or exploring other planets. In their daily lives, individuals establish routines and habits to increase the predictability of their lives and to reduce the occurrence of uncertainty.

Uncertainty is not experienced when something is predictable (i.e., certain) or completely unpredictable. Marris (1996) used the example of people living in an earthquake-prone area, wherein the sheer unpredictability of such an event prevents people from thinking about when it may occur. Thus, they do not experience uncertainty. Uncertainty, therefore, exists between absolute certainty and absolute unpredictability. Similarly, a person's career is not perfectly certain, nor is it absolutely unpredictable. There are always alternative courses of action and factors to consider that may reduce the certainty of a career decision. On the other hand, when pursuing a particular direction, individuals can take purposeful action to increase the predictability of an outcome. An individual's experience of his or her career, therefore, is in the realm of uncertainty--between absolute certainty and absolute unpredictability. …

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