Our experiences of work and what being employed looks like are rapidly changing. As economic landscapes shift, professions disappear and new ones are created. Increasing numbers of people have already faced, and many more will continue to face the very real possibility of having several different careers over the span of their lives. The way we prepare for career and the idea of career success now require different perspectives. Along with these many changes is the increasing use of the word flexibility to describe the future of work and to characterize a skill set. This loose term is associated with the changing structures of the work(s) we do, the duration of our work (contractual and the sharing economy, as examples) and the required, yet broad skills to be competitive for multiple careers. However, flexibility means more than just our acceptance of these new realities and the acquiring of new skill sets, it also includes the very personal. We require emotional, experiential, educational and economic flexibility to transition successfully to multiple jobs and careers. This is where vocational and individual counseling become tightly woven.
We ascribe value and personal meaning to the work we do. Work and careers influence how we see ourselves and how we experience aspects of our identity. Work often gives us community and connection along with a sense of purpose. Work is both practical and personal. When definitions of work, career and what it means to be employed become less secure and unreliable at the same time that dramatic stories announce the rise of automation and the eradication of many professions, we are often left to cope with the anxiety of the unknown alongside the continuous need and striving to experience mastery, purpose and belongingness. Narratives about the rise of automation, for example, have fostered an unquestioned perception that the need for human skills is disappearing. The implication of these stories is that human beings themselves may be irrelevant. These prevailing messages are not only dismissive of our human dignity and unique strengths, they also work at narrowing our personal expectations, increasing our vulnerability and doubt about our capacities. This in turn reduces our emotional and experiential openness and our capacity to be flexible.
The call to be vocationally flexible requires educational institutions, training centres and business themselves to adapt to these changing realities and provide the necessary bridges for people to transition to different careers or modes of work. This adaptation also requires rethinking what economic stability and personal incomes look like in a world of “flexibility.”
Nor can we assume that acquiring new skills (extrinsic skills) to work flexibly will necessarily produce a commensurate flexibility in emotional and experiential capacities. A hybrid of vocational and individual counseling can help us better understand how change and experiences of transition are personally absorbed, felt, lived out, ascribed meaning, struggled with and valued so that we can assist individuals to flourish while they step into and through these transitions.