Crisis at Work: Identity and the End of Career, by Jesse Potter

Bankers swap cufflinks for cassocks in an era of reinvention not defined by pay, finds Leslie Gofton

August 13, 2015
Review: Crisis at Work: Identity and the End of Career, by Jesse Potter

Who nowadays talks of “the leisure society”? As Hannibal Lecter remarked on the career breakdown of Clarice Starling, “You may love your job, Clarice, but it will not love you back.”

The death of work as traditionally conceived seems to be in the offing, if we accept the analyses of sociologists such as Ulrich Beck, Zygmunt Bauman and Richard Sennett, but the prospect is now a source of dread rather than the realisation of a dream of freedom from toil. Bauman sees the German economy moving within a short time towards factories operated by one worker and a dog – the worker to press the button that sets the machines in operation, and the dog to stop him doing anything else.

My best friend and I started work as accountancy trainees in the mid-1960s. I quit within a few years to go off to university; my friend stayed in corporate accountancy for the next 35 years. On retirement, he moved to the Lake District and started his “real” career of playing the guitar and singing. I used to ask him how he stuck to accounts for all those years. Just a way to pay the bills, he always said, and I knew what he meant. At least I thought so. Neither of us would have seen our work as “who we are” or were – although when we were asked, that would have been the required and conventional answer.

In the past century, replying to the question “who are you?” would elicit a response starting with your occupation. For a very large proportion of the population, this is no longer the case. Jobs that are likely to lead to lifetime employment or even in the same trade or industry are the exception, rather than the norm. The days of the gold watch are long gone. But what then? Of course, for middle-class managers and professionals, things have not changed quite so dramatically, and there are clearly different concerns. Jesse Potter’s study, which is based on his doctoral thesis, examines the factors at play when professionals are in the process of changing their work.

It has long been the case that for managers and professionals, work is expected to fulfil a more extensive range of satisfactions than merely paying the bills, and it is these requirements that Potter’s study addresses. As he argues, most theories that address these issues rely on general accounts of institutional change, but fail to consider the degree to which the individuals concerned engineer their own biographies, acting to bring about change. To redress this oversight, Potter presents a range of subjects whose situations illustrate the importance of these self-generated “transitions” – and, importantly and valuably, he gathers input from the individuals in question.

Among those he focuses on are Samita, an accountant who is retraining as an artist, and Rose, an engineer, who is becoming a full-time mum. George is moving up from transportation coordinator to a career as an IT engineer, to the delight of his family and relatives; stockbroker Anthony is “transitioning” from the City to doctoral study, and developing antipathy towards his old employment and its environs. Evelyn’s life is being taken over by Buddhism, and Pete is moving from banking to the priesthood; both are being swept up by “epiphanies” and new experiences. David is escaping the anonymity of a submerged existence within the Civil Service bureaucracy for the freedom of setting up his own firm and dealing with new clients and processes; Christina is discovering new possibilities in everyday life as she makes the transition from actuarial work to radio production.

Although for middle-class professionals and managers the world of work still offers opportunities, many of us remain the Reginald Perrins of our age, struggling to escape the bonds of convention and office discipline. Scrutinising a world increasingly dominated by forces and logic outside individuals’ control, Potter’s study looks at the ways in which, rather than simply relying on the labels that derive from our occupation, the pursuit of a “meaningful” lifestyle and greater attention to “work-life balance” have become much more important. As he emphasises, this is very much the province of middle-class individuals, more endowed with assets and opportunities.

The range of experiences of his subjects is as broad as can be imagined. Rather than their being simply swept up by the profound changes in the institutions that have in the past formed the keystones of identity, Potter argues that individual cases represent various “change strategies”, enacted by the individual. Those who were tied to a standard notion of “career” found that it structured their life course and offered a personally significant sense of identity, but, as Potter remarks, biography is “always at least to some extent taking place on the edge of institutional influence”. Rather than careers being formal, rigid and abstracted, they are rather to be seen as living and breathing processes, with movement driven by the individual according to personal choice.

Although Potter’s study certainly makes a significant contribution to the debates surrounding change processes in the world of work, and the issues involved are of near-universal interest, this is very much a sociologist’s book. The language used can be tortuous. After he draws together a clear account of, for example, Samita’s tale of her struggle to move from a career in accountancy to study at art school, he finds it necessary to describe this career as “heteronormative and gender specific”. Many of the terms used here have specialised and esoteric meanings as part of sociological discourse – “transitioning”, “agency” and even “career” itself all have specific meanings and usage that frequently deviate from their use in common parlance – and indeed, arguing for the adoption of non-standard meanings is part of Potter’s analysis. Much of the study’s work revolves around technical aspects of the discourses through which individuals modify their biography.

The selection of subjects also raises certain issues. They represent, Potter admits, a very privileged and successful section of the population. The ability of these case studies to exemplify the changing ways of reshaping the characteristics of the work process generally may not be as great as he hopes. Those he surveys are highly articulate and self-aware, and offer clear and lucid accounts of the changes in their career or their work-life balance. While such methods are of course useful, the study’s reliance on the “narratives” provided by a small, highly selective and narrowly bounded range of careers must raise doubts as to the generalisability of any analysis.

There is also conflation of highly personal accounts of career changes or struggles between different dimensions: Oliver the Portuguese dentist torn between the need for financial security and his ambition to pursue a career composing film scores; Miles “transitioning” from barrister to cheese and wine shop owner; John, chartered surveyor morphing into travel guide author. Interestingly, their accounts often self-consciously employ the ideas and methods of popular writers and schools of thought to organise and validate their life choices – for example, the mythology popularised by Joseph Campbell – and to rationalise and legitimate these changes. Potter himself acknowledges that “the work of self understanding as interpreted…in this book” is neither omnipresent nor typical.

There we have it. Some of us run away to join the circus, while others spend half a lifetime waiting to do something they really want to do. Different strokes for different folks, as we sociologists say.

Les Gofton is teaching fellow in sociology, Durham University.

Crisis at Work: Identity and the End of Career
By Jesse Potter
Palgrave Macmillan, 224pp, £60.00
ISBN 9781137305428 and 5435 (e-book)
Published 30 June 2015

The author

Author Jesse Potter“I’ve had lots of jobs, but none that really held any long-term promise. As a child I wanted to be a professional athlete or an airline pilot. Not surprisingly, as a 10-year-old I never (once!) dreamed of being an academic,” says Jesse Potter. Fate clearly had other plans, as next month he takes up a lectureship at Canterbury Christ Church University, and his partner, Victoria Redclift, is a lecturer at the University of Surrey.

Born in Palo Alto, California, Potter spent most of his “formative years” in southern California, in Santa Monica.

“The Santa Monica of my youth was a hub of Left politics and progressive city planning, and because of this, and despite its prime location near wealthy Malibu and the beach and ocean, it was both socio-economically and ethnically diverse. My school friends reflected that diversity, and with the help of activist parents my upbringing laid the foundations of a liberal orientation to the social world.   

“I was definitely an observer from an early age,” Potter recalls. “I have always enjoyed watching – street scenes, interactions, sunsets – and I believe my desire to watch has served me well as I’ve moved through academic life.”

His schoolteachers inspired him “less via the substantive content of what they were saying, and more by the passion, energy and commitment with which they said it”, he observes.

Potter took his undergraduate degree at San Francisco State University before heading to the London School of Economics for postgraduate study.

“I was late to higher education – I didn’t begin my BA until after the age of 30 – so I was determined to do well once I got to university. The sociology department at San Francisco State was quite political – full of academics whose values and commitments were closely aligned with their work – and so it was an easy place to be inspired, and to really see the possibility of sociological inquiry. It was an amazing department, and I wouldn’t have continued in academia if it were not for my experiences while there.” 

Potter adds: “San Francisco State was a very different place to the LSE. While both institutions have strong research cultures, SFSU put a particular emphasis on teaching and staff/student interaction. For very understandable reasons, many elite research-focused universities in the UK are still struggling to find that same balance. Having said this, most colleagues would like more time to do both – teach and do research – and our challenge as a sector going forward is to foster institutional structures and organisational cultures that facilitate an equitable emphasis on intellectual and educational work.”   

Crisis at Work, he confirms, “is indeed the monograph form of my doctoral thesis. While I did not make major changes in moving from the thesis to the book, I did spend some time working on clarity and readability, and attempting to strip away jargon while bringing core arguments to the fore. I have always been inspired by academic writing that is both sophisticated yet accessible, so I’ve worked hard at presenting my work in a similar manner.” 

The interview subjects for his doctoral research, he says, were found via word of mouth. “Interestingly, while at first glance the changes they went through might seem quite radical, I think we all know at least one person who has experienced a similar type of change.” His interviewees “reported their experience of being interviewed as having been quite cathartic, and not surprisingly many have continued to update me as the circumstances of their working lives have developed”.

Potter’s current work “in some ways picks up on the Crisis research. For this British Academy-funded project, Private Lives of the Recession, I am interviewing people who were fired or made redundant during the recent recession. My aim is to facilitate a ‘telling’ of what is essentially a transitional period, generating a better sense of what it means to negotiate shifting social, economic and personal circumstances. So at their substantive core both projects deal with stories of change.”

What gives him hope? Young people, Potter replies, “because they’re more tolerant and open”.

Karen Shook


Print headline: What do you do these days?

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