Demos Daily: Careerquake

Unemployment rose by 856,500 in the first month of lockdown and many of the 7.5 million furloughed workers will add to their number once the scheme ends. At the same time, a recent survey found more than one in four workers believe their job lacks meaning and may be reflecting on their future working lives during lockdown. The post-lockdown jobs market will be very different to the one we left behind in March. It will be more important than ever that people are supported to get their working lives on track through access to high quality retraining and careers guidance. 

In 1996 leading expert in careers guidance Professor Tony Watts recommended a series of measures to enable people to adapt to the impact of rapid technological change, globalisation and downsizing. In our report Careerquake he advocated repositioning careers guidance to make it a service available to people throughout their working lives. He also proposed incentives to lifelong learning and financial support to enable people to pursue flexible and portable careers.

Read the introduction below, and the full report here.


Careers are what give shape to many people’s working lives. In their 20th century form, they have offered the chance to rise upwards, to gain in status and reward. As such they have been a prominent feature of private and public bureaucracies, and of the professions. They have provided a stable identity, a way of motivating employees and of tying personal to organisational goals.

Such careers have only, however, been available to a minority of people – mainly white, middle-class men. The pyramidal structure of most work organisations meant that opportunities for progression were necessarily limited. Nor did careers touch the large numbers of people who worked on their own or in small organisations, in domestic work or as child carers, or the unemployed.

Currently, many who have been accustomed to having a career are seeing it stripped from them. In organisations as various as Unilever and the senior civil service, downsizing and delayering are playing havoc with existing career structures. Commentators are proclaiming ‘the end of jobs’ (1) and even ‘the end of work’. (2)

Yet at the same time there are powerful forces widening access to careers. Nearly a third of each new age cohort is now going through higher education, compared to less than one in twenty at the beginning of the 1960s. (3) The proportion leaving school with qualifications has steadily risen too. Amongst employers there is growing demand for skilled labour, with managers and professionals the two fastest growing categories of job both in the last decade and, if forecasters are to believed, in the next one as well. (4)

Powerful voices have been arguing that this democratisation of careers should be encouraged and extended. The Confederation of British Industry has advanced the concept of ‘careers for all’ – based on more individually-driven careers, linked to continuous learning throughout life – as the means of achieving the ‘skills revolution’ Britain requires if it is to achieve competitive advantage in the global economy. (5)

This Argument takes the case a step further. It suggests that careers can become part of the normal experience of work for the great majority – but only if the right support structures are put in place. It shows that careers can become more personal – more under the control of individuals rather than big organisations – but not if individuals are left to fend for themselves.

The body of the Argument is in four main sections. The following section briefly examines the nature of the careerquake and its current effects. The next section outlines a possible new model of career, while the third section indicates the policy measures that will be needed to implement the model. The final section summarises the paper’s conclusions.


(1) Bridges,W.(1995).Jobshift:howto prosper in a workplace without jobs. London: Brealey.

(2) Rifkin, J. (1995). The end of work. New York: Tarcher & Putnam.

(3) HMSO, (1996) Social trends. London: HMSO.

(4) Institute of Employment Research, Warwick University, various papers.

(5) Confederation of British Industry (1989). Towards a skills revolution. London: CBI.