What opportunities will there be for academic careers in the 21st century, and how should academics prepare for those opportunities? This paper responds to these questions, examining issues related to the emergent conditions of academic work, including the issue of employment conditions. It addresses the paradox facing institutions of higher education: the need for highly skilled and flexible staff who are committed to their work and their concurrent need to be able to flexibly change the composition of their workforce in response to changes in external demands and opportunities. Academics should not expect universities, as employers, to be the primary long-term supporter of their career development. This invites academics to re-shape themselves as individuals who can be productive in a rapidly changing world through active self-management. In turn, this will require that academics recognize what is happening to their career opportunities, and invest in the development of competencies for such self-management of those opportunities, including know-why, know-how, and know-who competencies. The message is that it may be better to think in terms of a professional career, and of relationships with employers more flexibly, as separate but related opportunities.
This paper explores the situation, and offers some ways of thinking about the implications of the emergent patterns of employment for academic workers in the early decades of this millennium. It does so from the assumption that there will be a growth in employment opportunities for those who wish to engage in academic work. That assumption is based on the projected growth reflected in the general reviews of Dearing (NCIHE 1997) and West (CRHEPF 1998), and on the more detailed study of employment opportunities in Australia of Adams et al (1999), which suggests an national annual growth rate of employment of 1.5%, while growth in 'university lecturers and tutors' is expected to be 4.9% over the period 1998-2010. What these figures do not indicate is the changes in employment patterns that are likely to accompany this growth. This paper addresses that task, exploring issues related to the emergent conditions of employment, and related opportunities for advancement for individual academic workers. The perspective adopted is that of the academic as employee. Those who seek a more institutional focus may find the recent work of Coaldrake and Stedman (1999) of more use. My argument is that individual academics need to become as equally focused as their employing institutions on self-interested self-management.
In the more general scenario, work of a high quality is expected, but the 'psychological contract' between worker and employer is being radically altered by an era of the "disposable, rootless worker" (Castillo 1997, p. 418). While Castillo's characterisation draws on the rhetoric of economic exploitation, discussion of the relationship between organisations and their employees is increasingly focused on issues of competence, the security of employment, and the nature of employment contracts.
This shift in focus is caused by the development of a labour market characterized by increasing demand for flexibility, competence, and commitment, combined with the inability of enterprises to offer full and stable employment conditions. (Graversen & Johansson 1998, p. 260)The paradox is that, while universities, like most other organisations, need staff who are committed to their work, and have a capacity to rapidly adapt to new institutional expectations, these organisations do not want to guarantee security of employment, because such guarantees would decrease their flexibility to respond to changes in their markets and thus threaten their chances of survival.
The 'psychological contract' derives from the relationship between workers and their institutions, a relationship that is connected with the work they perform in both a psychological and a material sense. This relationship dominates their life space in terms of both the demands of work on their time, and in terms of their sense of success or failure in life (Graversen & Johansson 1998). In part it reflects the view that, in advancing their individual career, they advance the interests of their institution (Adams 1998). Thus, academics and aspiring academics desire more than a job and a fortnightly wage. They expect their work to involve opportunities for advancement within a particular institution. In particular they expect a career path to be traveled by means of merit.
Career decisions are important. They signal intentions and expectations. But those decisions have to make contact with the wider set of life-experiences, and with the very different conditions of employment that exist, and are emerging, within universities and in the wider community. One of the consequences of this linkage is that many of the more traditional expectations and assumptions attached to the term 'academic career' act to constrain thinking rather than to broaden it.
The term 'career' brings with it implications of pre-existing 'structures' which form both the path and the means of advancement. Such structures provide guidance on what is valued and what is more optional (Adams 1998; Toren & Moore 1998). Tierney (1997), in a report on socialization into academic careers, notes that his respondents found this pathway very poorly lit in universities - "the goals for tenure were unclear" (p. 12), and "grand markers that conveyed institutional meaning were absent" (p. 13). These structures - tenure and schemes for internal promotion - provide a 'fuzzy' set of options by which advancement might be achieved. While they offer limited options, they really do not guarantee advancement (Toren & Moore 1998). Some achieve promotion very quickly, while others toil for little obvious reward. However, these structures do, or did, offer a form of collectivist and 'shared' security, even if this was both fuzzy and open to the idiosyncrasies of individual and institutional actions and/or practices.
Universities, as Altbach argues and the Dearing report suggests, will attempt to increase their use of non-tenure staff primarily because this strategy involves reduced costs, and increases the flexibility of their academic workforce primarily through decreasing the cost of discontinuing employment. The outcome in terms of opportunities for employment, for the US, has meant that "[b]etween 1970 and 1995, the number of full-time faculty increased by about half, while over the same period part-time faculty grew by two and a half times" (Feenberg 1999). There seems little reason to doubt that the annual growth in employment of 4.9% over the period 1998-2010 predicted for Australia will follow a similar, if not more skewed, distribution between tenurable and part-time positions.
The part-time and untenured underclass - or as Altbach calls them, the 'untouchables' - are primarily employed to teach. While many have very similar research qualifications to 'the tenured Brahmins', they are "hired to teach a course or two, provided no benefits, often given no office space, and expected simply to show up to teach a class" (Altbach 1997, p. 322). His reference to a type of caste system is deliberate, highlighting differences in prestige and drawing attention to this system as a hierarchy within the academy, a hierarchy which challenges the more egalitarian assumptions of collegiality. This underclass is gendered - disproportionately the 'untouchables' are women, although in some disciplines the reverse applies. And it is employed to undertake a quite specific and limited forms of academic work, and as a consequence, the amount and nature of the paid work done by its members is far more restricted than for those with full-time and tenured positions.
It is now the norm for organizations to have no fixed career paths, and for individuals in them to see no further than one or two years ahead, if that, in their own careers. (Peiperl & Baruch 1997, p. 7)Collectively these assertions suggest two major challenges to the assumptions underlying the traditional concept of a career. First, the old psychological contract between employer and employee, represented in the concepts of loyalty and career, is rapidly disappearing. The academic underclass has already experienced the failure of this contract. The future will increasingly involve a psychological contract with the self and one's work rather than the self with an organization (Hall & Moss 1998, p. 25). Indeed, "the underlying message is less to serve the present employer, than to protect against dependency upon it" (Defillippi & Arthur 1994, p. 310). This change does not, in one sense, represent an insurmountable challenge for some academics, given their loyalties to their disciplines and their valuing of autonomy (Adams 1998).
Competence and hard work no longer guarantee continued employment. (Peiperl and Baruch, p. 7)
With fewer external guides for work, greater value is placed on improvisation and learning. (Rousseau 1997, p. 518)
Promotions and formal status gains are being reduced and replaced by lateral moves presented as 'career-building' assignments. (Rousseau, p. 520)
The second and related challenge is that career advancement will be increasingly individualised (Adkins &Lury 1999). Organisations, including universities, will invest fewer resources in mapping out a generic, pre-formed path, or in procedurally supporting the movement of all up that path. The new situation will include neither a generic path nor generic means, as they are currently understood. Career advancement will become more individualised for the employee, and more responsive to the short to medium term (1 to 5 years) needs of the organisation. Thus, it might better be thought of in terms of role restructuring to meet a specific and current institutional need than a reward for past achievements.
The second leaf is 'the contractual fringe', the individual and firms to which the organisation outsource specific aspects of its work - subcontractors. Outsourced work will either demand skills that core staff do not have, or be too tedious for or of no interest to those people. These subcontractors will have a relatively permanent form of employment, but they will only be paid for results. Many universities have moved to outsource aspects of work formerly undertaken by general staff, including cleaning, security and catering.
The third leaf is 'the flexible labor force' - the part-time and casual staff who are employed to work on a needs basis. Handy's discussion recognizes this form of employment, and the workers it involves, as essential to the capacity of the organization to change the size of its workforce quickly in response to changes in demand for its products or services. These include the 'academic underclass' involved in teaching (and research), as well as the irregular work of general staff, such as that associated with running formal examinations, and the processing of enrolment data at the beginning of each year.
A second version of career management focuses on the achievement of increases in both responsibilities and remuneration. This is related to the traditional pattern of career development through internal promotion from one level to the next. It is also related to the move from a focus on teaching and/or research to administration, for example, the move to Head of School. An underlying argument of this paper is that the first type of promotion is likely to be increasingly difficult to achieve for tenured staff, while it is unavailable to contract conditions for part-time and casual staff. On the other hand, this form of career advancement is likely to become more accessible through a tradeoff between security and 'reward'. At the same time, advancement will continue to be achievable through changing employers, particularly where an individual's competencies are in high demand.
The challenges resulting from new organisational priorities and practices have been recognized for some time, with some organisations and their employees having negotiated new relationships. In a review of such experiences, Hall and Moss (1998), offer three outcome scenarios: 'lost in the trees'; 'sees the forest'; and, 'comfortable in the woods'. In the first situation, employees are experiencing the loss of the old psychological contract, and have yet to experience any release from the anxiety this loss has caused. The second scenario reflects settings where the drastic changes occurred 'a long time ago'. As a result, the grieving is past, and a new sense of 'acceptance' has developed, with "many employees now embracing the new arrangement, with its greater freedom, [and] responsibility" (p. 27).
The success stories of 'comfort in the woods' involve firms that showed "exceptional leadership and high employee involvement" (p. 28) - a combination that seems unlikely to be found in large institutions, ie, any Australian university. These allow the relationship to change gradually, avoiding a sense of unexpected loss - a process of continuous (and continuing) learning and adjustment. While one of the features of these firms is their commitment to staff, the new psychological contract is focused on the achievement of the firm's goals - it is a performance-driven contract, which rewards loyalty-through-achievement. That is, it involves a form of mutually beneficial loyalty. This loyalty is referred to as 'the new protean career contract' by Hall and Moss (1998). The term 'protean' comes from 'Proteus', the sea god in Greek mythology who could change his shape at will. If the future involves a 'protean career' what strategies might be helpful to provide a sense of personal direction and advancement during a work-life?
However, there is little evidence that academics have begun to recognize their own emerging opportunities and challenges, or to develop strategies for self-interested self-management. They tend to be focused on their disciplines - the self-help book industry has not been bought by academics. Management and the literature that serves it are the concern of managers, and most academics want as little to do with them as possible (Adams 1998; Martin 1999).
Once the challenge for academics was to get on the career pathway. Now it seems that it might be helpful, even healthy, to get off of it and invest in what Hesketh and Considine (1998) refer to as "Me Incorporated" career management.
"Me Incorporated", like any effective company, must not only maintain current activities and profitability, but may need to keep a wary eye on the future, investing in skills to safeguard against future obsolescence. Investment might also include accumulating social capital through increased networking and the development of a diverse array of social contacts. The greater the diversity of the networks the better; close intense networks are not as valuable as diverse ones. (pp. 406-407)Investing in a psychological contract that is fixed, immutable, based on 'modernist' assumptions, and focused on institutions as benevolent providers of a career path is likely to prove fruitless.
The message of those who write of 'protean' careers is that it may be better to think in terms of a professional career, and of relationships with employers, as separate but related issues. The advice is to separate the self from the employer as part of a re-shaping of the self as an individual who can be productive in an uncertain world, and capable of maintaining a sense of personal stability while simultaneously and cautiously engaging with change. This 'enterprising' of worker identities, and the process of 'self accumulation', and their implications are explored by Adkins and Lury (1999). One of their conclusions is that these processes will continue to favour men over women. An implication of their review, for women in particular, is a need to separate personal identity from both an employer and a particular 'product or service', eg, teaching or research. Accordingly, they suggest that 'self accumulation' should focus on career development seen more broadly than just a capacity to provide particular 'products or services'.
The literature offers some suggestions on how this might be pursued. Defillippi and Arthur's (1994) work on the value of three competencies - know-why, know-how, and know-who competencies - is particularly useful. Their meanings, adapted to fit my immediate intentions and to include ideas from other authors, are as follows.
The point of this broad competence, encapsulated in the above points, is its relationship with goals that are financially rewarding and personally meaningful. Because beliefs, values and opportunities change in both nature and significance over time and circumstance, competence in this area will be amenable to completion but not ever finished.
The psychological contract to create opportunities for self-development and employment-advancement for academics will increasingly be with themselves rather than any employing institution. Fulfilling this contract will require the development of capacities to value and develop skills, expertise and relationship networks. This will require a high level of personal awareness and responsibility, and a complementary awareness of trends in the professional environment in which they are working, or seek to work.
One of the questions academics will need to constantly ask themself is "what areas of work, projects, responsibilities, learning would I like to engage in over the next two to three years?" In turn, this suggests two further questions: "how am I going to achieve this" and "who is going to pay me to do this"? Answers to questions like this will help to ensure that performance evaluation and activity planning discussions with supervisors serve the productive processes of self-creation for 'advancing' academics.
Adams, P.D., Dixon, P.B., McDonald, D., Meagher, G.A. & Rimmer, M.T. (1999). Employment in Australia: occupations, threats and opportunities. Australian Bulletin of Labour, 25: 283-301.
Adkins, L. and Lury, C. (1999). The labour of identity: performing identities, performing economies. Economy and Society, 28: 598-614.
Altbach, P.G. (1997). An international crisis? The American professoriate in comparative perspective. DÆDALUS, 126: 315-338.
Castells, M. (2000). Materials for an exploratory theory of network society. British Journal of Sociology, 51: 5-24.
Castillo, J.J. (1997). Looking for the meaning of work. Work and Occupations, 24: 413-425.
CRHEFP (Committee of Review of Higher Education Financing and Policy) (1998). Learning for Life: Final Report. Committee chaired by Roderick West. Canberra: AGPS.
Coaldrake, P. and Stedman, L. (1999). Academic Work in the Twenty-first Century. Occasional Paper Series, 99H, DETYA. [verified 22 Oct 2001] http://www.detya.gov.au/archive/highered/occpaper/99H/academic.pdf
Defillippi, R.J. and Arthur, M.B. (1994). The boundaryless career: a competency based perspective. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 15: 307-324.
Feenberg, A. (1999). Distance learning: promise of threat? Crosstalk, Winter. [verified 22 Oct 2001]
Graversen, G. and Johansson, J.A. (1998). The individual and the organization: introducing the theme. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 7: 257-264.
Hall, D.T. and Moss, J.E. (1998). The new protean contract: helping organizations and employees adapt. Organizational Dynamics, Winter 1998: 22-37.
Handy, C. (1989). The Age of Unreason. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.
Hesketh, B. and Considine, G. (1998). Integrating individual and organizational perspectives for career development and change. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 7: 405-418.
Higher Education Series Report 30 (1998). Change and Continuity in Academic Work. DETYA: Canberra. http://www.detya.gov.au/archive/highered/hes/hes30.pdf
Hort, L. (1997). The tiger hunt: collegiality, managerialism and shaping academic work. Unpublished Master of Higher Education thesis, Griffith University, Brisbane.
National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education (NCIHE). (1997). Higher Education in the learning society. Committee chaired by Ronald Dearing. [verified 22 Oct 2001] http://wwwd2.leeds.ac.uk/ncihe/
Peiperl, M. and Baruch, Y. (1997). Back to square zero: the post-corporate career. Organizational Dynamics, Spring 1997: 7-21.
Rousseau, D.M. (1997). Organizational behavior in the new organizational era. Annual Review of Psychology, 48: 515-546.
Taylor, P.G. (1999). Making Sense of Academic Life: Academics, Universities and Change. Buckingham: SRHE & Open University Press.
Tierney, W.G. (1997). Organisational socialization in higher education. Journal of Higher Education, 68: 1-16.
Toren, N. and Moore, D. (1998). The academic "hurdle race": A case study. Higher Education, 35: 267-283.
|Author: Peter G. Taylor, Griffith Institute for Higher Education, Griffith University, Australia|
Phone (07) 3875 6816 Fax (07) 3875 5998 Email firstname.lastname@example.org
Please cite as: Taylor, P. G. (2001). Academic careers in the 21st century: Making sense of new opportunities and challenges. In L. Richardson and J. Lidstone (Eds), Flexible Learning for a Flexible Society, 672-681. Proceedings of ASET-HERDSA 2000 Conference, Toowoomba, Qld, 2-5 July 2000. ASET and HERDSA. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/aset-herdsa2000/procs/taylor-p2.html