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uploaded: 14th July 2009

sense and sustainability at work

Bill Law

Suppose that impartial information...

>          is not that impartial; 
>          urgently needing its perspectives reframed;
>          to become more useful to contemporary living; 
>          making your programmes more credible;
>          and winning a broader base of support for
your work.


Bill reviews Ken Webster's Sense and Sustainability. It is an important new book signposting much of what careers workers now need most urgently to build into how they help clients and students.




We pay a lot of attention to labour economists, who have - for some time now - been telling us how work is changing. But 'the times they were a-changing' more than we knew - and, it turns out, more than they knew.

What with one thing and another, people's attitudes to work are also changing. This is important: people are relating to working life in different ways.  On the downside, talk of ‘stress’, ‘competition’ and ‘bullying’ crop up more frequently.  On the upside, people are showing more interest in ‘quality-of-life’, ‘work-life balance’ and ‘well-being’.  Policy is aware: what used to be called ‘careers education and guidance ’ is now part of a broader programme of ‘personal and social well-being’. 

'the times they were a-changing - more than labour economists knew'

twenty-first century careers work  The new thinking is overdue. People need to get to grips with how work-life affects their health and their family life. Work-life has always been, not only about how they earn a living, but how workers spend their earnings.  And your students and clients are increasingly interested in how work can unfairly exploit the vulnerable - animals, sweated labour, the developing world.  

And work has a carbon footprint. They know how to find out what is happening on our planet. It’s harder to know who and what is worth paying attention to.  And it’s harder still to work out what anybody can usefully do about it.  But working life is one of the prime settings for working out what to do about climate change.   Which is where you come in.

No adequate programme for enabling career management can afford to ignore work-life balance - least of all in the relationships between work and the environment.  Passing it by would be a good way of looking out-of-touch.  But little of what we currently include in our programmes gives it as much as a nod.  Environmental well-being is the most neglected features of what we do to enable career management - yet it is one of the most urgently important.  Which is where Ken Webster comes in. 

'work has a carbon footprint'


'environment is the most neglected feature of what we do to enable career management' 

finding the material Ken is an acclaimed developer of ideas for dealing with global warming and sustainability.  His most recent book Sense and Sustainability, written with Craig Johnson, is a carefully laid out account of what your students need to take on board in order to deal with the consequences of global warming. Words and images take the reader through an appreciation what people need to know and what they can usefully do about it. 

The images portray the differences between a linear and a cyclic economy.  A linear economy impulsively and wastefully sucks up energy-and-resources and spits it out as waste.  These are the economic assumptions on which much of careers work has, for too long, been based.  They have to change. 

And so, a cyclic economy makes no move until it knows how to design things so that what is used can become what will be used again.  It is the way that every niche in every ecology has worked since the beginning of life on earth.  It is the only basis on which life can be sustained.  This includes your clients' and students' lives, many of whom will be working into the twenty-second century.

And all of this is so, whether you believe that global warming is our fault or not.  It is happening.  Whatever we argue about emissions, we need to deal with global warming. Now.

That is Sense and Sustainability: words, graphs diagrams, maps, cross-sections, and cartoons - and a website stuffed with additional material.  You students will find cyclic products, ecological factories, recycling production flows, trends in global condition, low-carbon housing projects, sustainable farms, exemplary schools, future townships - and provocative opinions.  No shortage of material there.

'the economic assumptions on which much of our work is based have to change'



'a cyclic economy is the way that every niche in every ecology has worked since the beginning of life on earth'

making the links And you will also find accounts of useful learning sequences.  And it’s not hard to link any of them to careers work.

On bringing careers into environment - there are career-management advantages in being able to show that you understand the importance of the environmental impact of working life.  And we are entering economic conditions when there will be more opportunities for students to examine alternative ways of making work environmentally sustainable.  Some of those opportunities will be voluntary - and work is about giving as well as getting.  It calls on wider concepts of work - making locations where all students can claim their membership of society. And, because it thinks in these wider terms, it need leave no blank space on any cv.

On bringing environment into careers - we’ll need to look again at the ideas we use in careers work. The same old analyses of labour-market economics won’t do.  And working for environmental well-being, or any other aspect of well-being - is about more than matching people to opportunities, it is about discovering a deeper and wider purposefulness in working life.  It makes our conventional defence of impartiality look dangerously thin.  The more we realise that what we offer is wholly base on what linear labour economists have been churning out, the more we will realise that there is no defensible claim to impartiality.  That 'same old same old' was proposed in commercial interests. Conventional labour-market information is partially derived. We need to think again.

And there's plenty of room here for a big influx of new ideas for the bases on which we do our work,

'work is about giving as well as getting'



'the "same old same old" won't do - and there's plenty of room for a big influx of new ideas'

being credible and making it work We are working with how nature works, and - in nature - evolution is usually in the direction of complexity: it gives us more ways of living in our environment and coping with change.

In management-talk this is called 'integrative complexity'. It finds ways of linking what we do to as many ways as can be found for working with people on what they do.  Integrative complexity means that the greater the range of links a programme can make, then the more credible it will be, the more useful it will prove, and the more a flexibly it can adapt to changing conditions.  And global warming counts as a changing condition.

So Sense and Sustainability takes you to the threshold of new and needed developments in our field. It opens doors to the practicalities of how we make new thinking work in the programmes we design.  There are three inter-linked management tasks - none of which can take us far without the other two:

On designing what we do - this is scheme development: working on what kinds of programmes we need, using what sort of methods will work, drawing on what sort of learning settings, with how much opportunity to find out and try things out, for using learning in life.

On canvassing who we link with - this is network development: working on the links we need - inside the school and beyond - not confined to edge-of-timetable specialism, but working across boundaries and getting people with all kinds of useful knowledge partnering your students in their learning.

On being clear about what we ask - this is team development: working on the partners we need to find and support, recognising that this is not work for anybody who happens to be available, it is for people who are in command of their material, who understand the importance of this work and who can fire-up students' imagination, creativity and commitment - and that is not just anybody.

No quick fix here.  But there are starting points. Perhaps, right now, we need to find the appropriate image with which to brand our work.  Things change - we need a new imagery. 

'the greater the range of links a programme can make, then the more credible, useful and flexibly it will be'




'three inter-linked management tasks - none of which can take us far without the other two'

re-branding careers work We have grown used to a dominant metaphor, visualising career as if it were a race - so that it is easy to think of our role as helping people become winners. Not good thinking for the contemporary world, in which every winner is squeezing out a loser.  We need to do better than that.

Better to think of career as an exploration - where our role is to move on with our people - into up exploration of new, different and alternative ways of getting things the way we need them.  And that means getting things the way we all need them to be.

That makes the dominant metaphor a journey. It will be a long and challenging one.  So there's not a moment to lose.
'careers is a journey not a race - an exploration of new ways of getting things the way we all need them to be'

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