Careers Theory

Ikigai – “A reason for being”





The termikigaicompounds two Japanese words: iki (wikt:生き) meaning “life; alive” and kai (甲斐) “(an) effect; (a) result; (a) fruit; (a) worth; (a) use; (a) benefit


Together these definitions create the concept of “a reason to live” or the idea of having a purpose in life.


This is the puzzle of ikigai, and the difficulty of actually figuring out what your distinctive combination may be. It may be that asking these questions produces answers that all fit together and one quickly moves forward, confident in one’s knowledge of his ikigai. But it may not work that way; finding one’s ikigai can be a time-consuming, challenging process.

But that’s why, in the Japanese mind, solving the riddle of one’s ikigai is a process well worth the effort. Together, these four elements can bolster and anchor a well-rounded, satisfying life that provides not just pleasure when one does what one loves, or money when one does what one can be paid for, but a sense that one is fulfilling one’s destiny as well as helping others


The power of role models on education pathways choice

Much of the recent focus in CEIAG has been on growing the evidence base (and so being able to bend the policy ear) of the benefit of employer interactions on pupil’s employment and earning outcomes. Meanwhile the other side of the CEIAG practitioner coin of inspiring pupils to transition onto successful future education pathways has been left to happen purely on its perceived value. This is often achieved through similar activities such as site visits, taster type activities, assemblies and visiting speakers so it is interesting to see the growing evidence base for what type of provision is most successful in this area as well. The Behaviour and Insights Team have now published two studies which boost the evidence base for two practices in encouraging young people to apply to high tariff Universities

  1. That letters of encouragement to Year 12s from older students from similar backgrounds increased applications and acceptances to Russell Group Universities

and a more recent publication that shows that talks and mentoring sessions from current students at high tariff Universities also encourage higher application and acceptances rates at high tariff institutions. Any CEIAG provision requiring role models is time and commitment intensive which is a step change from their previous work on arm’s length interventions.

That these types of provisions work isn’t going to be much of a surprise to a CEIAG practitioner, it’s bread and butter stuff, but I found the four-year study interesting because of the positive impact the talks and mentoring had on the applications from disadvantaged backgrounds and also the age of students with which the provision had the most impact. The study showed that the outcome impact on acceptances was much higher for students in the program who were studying at FE or Sixth Form Colleges than those in schools.

insights team1

The working paper speculates that this finding could be a result of

college environments, which typically contain more students, are less conducive to personal support for application to university and selective university in particular. Alternatively, it could be that the selection of students into these further education colleges is a relevant factor. Because colleges offer a wider variety of courses, it could be that students who select into these institutions are interested in pursuing less typical careers and may not be aware of the benefit or options for university in the absence of our intervention.

Which reminds the practitioner around the dangers of stereotyping. Leaving aside the type of educational institution the young person was attending, it’s interesting to see that in-depth provision such as offering role models can still have large impacts with this age group. Practitioners will know that by 16-18 young people can be blinkered in their belief of the possible future pathways that are suitable for them. By this age, their horizons have been defined by the family, school and societal pressures around them. As the working paper describes

the concept of ‘social norms’ can explain how, by seeking to emulate the attitudes and actions of those in their social group, students adopt the idea that academic education is ‘not for them’

and this is just one of the modifiers of future plans. The study also follows previous findings that information giving is not enough to alter student plans as

information-only interventions have proven ineffective at encouraging college application behaviour. This is convincingly demonstrated by a randomised controlled trial in which over 1 million US students were targeted with emails and letters about the financial support available to college applicants. Despite the scale of this trial, it was found to have no discernible impact on college enrollment

This may lead practitioners to speculate that horizon broadening should occur at an earlier age but by KS5, more intensive interventions are needed.

I also found the study interesting as it adds to other psychological studies which show that once formed, a person’s impression of a situation can be remarkably perseverant, even when irrefutable facts or evidence is then produced which disproves the individuals stated belief. The reasons for this psychological trait and the many concerning consequences of it are covered in this fascinating New Yorker piece, “Why Don’t Facts Change Our Minds.”

The theory of cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber that irrational beliefs persist because reason evolved due to our need to live in collaborative groups

Reason is an adaptation to the hypersocial niche humans have evolved for themselves,” Mercier and Sperber write. Habits of mind that seem weird or goofy or just plain dumb from an “intellectualist” point of view prove shrewd when seen from a social “interactionist” perspective

This roadmap in our minds left over from evolution leads to confirmation bias (or in Mercier’s and Sperber’s terms “myside” bias) which is all to the benefit of winning arguments

This lopsidedness, according to Mercier and Sperber, reflects the task that reason evolved to perform, which is to prevent us from getting screwed by the other members of our group. Living in small bands of hunter-gatherers, our ancestors were primarily concerned with their social standing, and with making sure that they weren’t the ones risking their lives on the hunt while others loafed around in the cave. There was little advantage in reasoning clearly, while much was to be gained from winning arguments.

One can easily imagine this effect leading to the “social norms” constraints mentioned in the Behaviour Insight’s paper limiting young people’s percieved realistic choices. Wishing to retain standing within their social group and not stand out results in young people building their own beliefs and arguments for not pursuing less trodden routes no matter the weight of evidence provided to them that those less traveled paths could be more beneficial to them.

That this and previous studies on mentoring interventions can overcome these inherent traits is very interesting. Introducing role models into a young persons social sphere injects new views and so shifts the framing of acceptable/not acceptable choices and how they are perceived. It alters the height of the parapet of which the young person is comfortable sticking their head above.

When dealing with perhaps even more ingrained beliefs, it is why mentoring is so central to the Prevent Strategy and the work to reintegrate those with extremist views.

I would suggest that the practical outcomes from these studies and the associated cognitive science for the CEIAG practitioner thinking about pathways provision would be:

  1. Information signposting is not enough to impact choices
  2. Provision that does (role models, mentoring) is in-depth
  3. Never stereotype your pathway focus for different groups
  4. Hold onto the contact details of successful and varied alumni so that they can become the role models and repeat the cycle





The Crises for Young People

The polarisation of society in aspects of wealth, education, prospects and voting habits used to be aligned firmly along class or location but today a greater divide can be found along generation lines. The old and the young do not have much in common.

The young earned less during their early careers.

They will spend more on rental housing costs while the old benefit from the accumulated wealth in their owned homes and the policies required to redistribute this capital would need a significant shift in the direction of travel across Western economies.

The trust in the young of the welfare state is so low, crowdfunding is their go to option.

Much has been written on the appeal to younger voters of the 2017 Labour Party manifesto with its pledges of scrapping tuition fees, affordable housing and more secure employment.


What this means for the life chances for young people is covered in fascinating detail in a new book “The Crises for Young People; Generational Inequalities in Education, Work, Housing & Welfare” by Andy Green, Professor of Comparative Social Science, UCL Institute of Education. A free download, I found it an engrossing read, especially on the challenges facing this generation as they embark on their careers (page 60).

crisesfor youngpeople1

Which is a valuable spark to remember the value of Careers and employer engagement work with young people. It can be a disruptive force for good and enable empowerment for individuals to navigate the tide pushing back against them.

The nudge, nudge future of CEIAG

One of the most substantial and thought-provoking pieces of work on Careers published in the last year was the Careers & Enterprise Company (CEC) commissioned report “Moments of Choice” which I looked at here.

The report was written by the Behavioural Insights Team and it gave the CEC plenty of conclusions on which to plan their own future work

We will highlight key messages, alerting schools and colleges to the types of conversations that young people should be having and when they should be having them; the types of information they should consider in those conversations; the mistakes that young people typically make and, perhaps most importantly of all, the things that they do not need to worry about.

on how young people wanted to consume Careers IAG

moments of choice1

and how the CEC would go about trying to achieve that

moments of choice2

In the past weeks two projects have come to light which show the way that this future Careers IAG apparatus might work in practice.

First was another Insights Team piece of research which used a three year randomised controlled trial to find that sending letters of encouragement to high achieving young people in Year 12, “penned” by students from similar backgrounds, increased the number of applications and acceptances to Russell Group universities. This kind of cost-effective intervention (printing and posting some mail merge letters are a lot cheaper than Careers Advisers) can be highly targeted using not only GCSE attainment data but also parental income data now available.

This type of intervention is small-scale when compared to Careers choice help for all young people outlined by the CEC above but we can see how such interventions could be scalable yet still retain an element of personalisation to the message so desired by the young people themselves as well as using technology to more be responsive to users needs.

An example of how this type of personalised messaging system could be used to aid Careers decisions can found in another Behaviour Insights Team project called Promptable.

Aimed at FE students, Promptable uses text messages to text students and nominated “Study Supporters” weekly with reminders and prompt discussions about revision and tutor feedback in the build up to exams. The Team found that students who took part in the Promptable trials boosted their College attendance and exam performance.

Imagine a similar system designed for secondary school age young people and nominated “Supporters” discussing Careers choices at appropriate landmarks. Schools or Colleges ask students to sign up to the site, the school has uploaded their own timeline for PHSE or Careers lessons, for Key Stage 4 choices, for specific visits, talks or careers fairs, for Key Stage 5 choices, for Higher Education plans, links to CEIAG online resources etc etc and then the site sends prompting texts to students and “Supporters” to discuss these milestones or enable Supporters to remind students to attend events. As with Promptable, you could even have the student complete a short questionnaire on sign up outlining areas of interest which they can tailor by sending code texts back (“to out of messages about events please text EVENTS STOP back to this number”) which would also notify the Supporter so a discussion could be had (“actually I think it would be good if you did go to that Apprenticeship Information Evening”).

This kind of interaction fulfills all of the requirements of an easily accessible, horizon broadening intervention method that also encourages personalised face to face discussions. CEIAG event notification and student tracking systems are already on the market through products such as Grofar but this system has the added impetus (or nudge) method of the Supporter, known to the student and offering  chance for discussion. Some in the CEIAG community would ask where in this system does the CEIAG professional fit in? As the local architect of the educational establishment’s profile on the main website, the organiser of the provision, the record keeper of attendance and the option of face to face guidance as another method of provision to be offered to the student body but most of all, as the face of encouraging student sign up to the system would be my proposal.

Large scale systems face a balance between creating systems that work for the majority yet be flexible enough to impact the individual. The communication method of results of systems like Promptable and the targeted use of household data to tailor messages to young people such as the “Encouraging people into University” report could show the way on how this is feasible in CEIAG.

An example of misguided CEIAG blaming

As someone who likes keeping up to date with CEIAG policy changes and events, I read a lot of articles both in the mainstream and specialist media who give CEIAG a right good thwacking.

If it’s a think piece on the latest terrible social mobility stats, make sure to include a bash of CEIAG in schools.

300 words on the lack of esteem parents hold for vocational courses, make sure to include a swing at school CEIAG.

Are you a business owner baffled by the low number of young people starting apprenticeships, then Careers advice in schools is surely your issue.

Most of these type of articles will include a reference to the (now four years old) Ofsted report “Going in the right direction” on the standards of careers guidance provision in secondary schools to show the research has been done but not many will point to more recent Ofsted publications that say things are improving.

And, the bit that stings, is they usually have a point. An overblown point that fails to acknowledge other deficiencies in the system such as low apprenticeship pay, the poor reputation of vocational qualifications and the fact that demand for apprenticeships vastly outstrips supply but still a point.

This open goal for journalists and freelancers looking to add a few more shares and likes from the education community ready to reconfirm their suspicions that CEIAG is naff can sometimes be missed though.

A recent(ish) article in the Guardian spoiled what was a well researched round-up of the current CEIAG landscape by over reaching on it’s causality to what inspired the article in the first place.

Young people need to be better equipped for the world of work. This is something that schools and government agree on, but there have been frequent criticisms of the careers information they provide.

Last week a report for the Social Mobility Commission found that children from poorer backgrounds face a “class earnings penalty” when they enter the workplace. And a recent Ofsted report found that of 40 schools, just four were providing adequate careers advice to their students.

Which, on the face of it, seems like a fair connection to make, that is, until you read that section of the actual report.

social mobility report3

So let’s be clear on what those findings mean. An employee, despite having the same levels of education and experience doing the same job as a colleague earns over £2000 less a year because they come from a working class background.

The researchers found this pay difference is more pronounced social mobility report4

when they looked at difference aspects of the class divide but the fact that it remains when all of the factors are controlled for is remarkable.

The report goes on to speculate on some of the possible reasons for this finding on the “supply side”

As previous work suggests, the mobile may specialise in less lucrative areas (Cook, Faulconbridge, and Muzio 2012; Ashley 2015), may be more reluctant to ask for pay raises, have less access to networks facilitating work opportunities (Macmillan, Tyler, and Vignoles 2015), or in some cases even exclude themselves from seeking promotion because of anxieties about “fitting in” (Friedman 2015).

and the “demand side”

they are either consciously or unconsciously given fewer rewards in the workplace than those from more advantaged backgrounds. This may manifest as outright discrimination or snobbery (Friedman et al 2016), or it may have to do with more subtle processes of favouritism or ‘culturalmatching’, whereby elite employers misrecognise social and cultural traits rooted in middle class backgrounds as signals of merit and talent (Rivera, 2015; Ashley, 2015).

Which is where the link to CEIAG in schools falls down. While the supply side characteristics are qualities that (to different extents) public sector intervention in the form of CEIAG can contest the demand side factors are beyond our sphere. And it’s those practices which, only through fundamental changes of attitude and practice in the workplace, will progress be made on discrimination against employees from working class backgrounds.




“I’ve never had a job…”



Today’s Guardian has a quick interview with British Gold medal winning cyclist Laura Kenny ( nee Trott).

This is an athlete who has reached the peak of her sport and won numerous titles. Who dedicates her life to achieving levels of fitness and performance beyond the reach of many of us.A life of travel and competition.

Her food intake is carefully monitored. Her training regime intense.

OH:How many hours are you on the bike for?

LT: It could be anything from three hours in the morning to gym in the afternoon, or three hours in the morning and four or five efforts in the afternoon – not like two hours on the track solid.

so intense that she would regularly be violently sick after particularly gruelling sessions. All hours, all weathers.

But check out her answer to one of the questions


Find what you love. Do what you love.



Moments of choice

The emergence of evidence led research to direct careers policy in recent years has been a welcome branch of a wider evidence led trend across educational policy making. Using longitudinal data to not only show that employer faced careers interventions have positive outcomes but also to pinpoint the wage premium value these type of interventions have had has been a hugely persuasive headline for policy makers.

Keen to show that they are fulfilling one of their briefs to “show what works,” the Careers & Enterprise Company recently released a research paper “Moments of Choice – How education outcomes data can better support informed career decisions”. The document is based on two pieces of research: 1) an 84 page commissioned report also called “Moments of Choice” by the Behavioural Insights Team and 2) a piece of work by PricewaterhouseCoopers which looked at the current landscape of careers information providers.

The work of the Behavioural Insights Team is fascinating as it mixes psychology, sociology and economics to enable the state (or now that it is a standalone company, any paying client) to get the reaction from the public they desire. When the Department of Health wanted more people to join the organ donor list or HMRC wanted more people to pay their taxes on time, it was the Behavioural Insights Team they called. The potential overlap of Behavioural Economics and nudge theory to the student CEIAG process in schools is obvious and the scope for young people to make decisions and choices that are more informed and considered is huge.

The Insights Team research is based on a small number of interviews with young people and career professionals and a number of round-table events attended by a range of stakeholders. I attended one of those round-tables and noted at the time just what a task the Team had undertaken

and, looking back, it was stark just how misunderstood the event was by the stakeholders attending. The aim of looking at all of the influencing elements of career choice was too nebulous a concept for many to engage with or too wide for those only attending to reinstate their patch.

This complexity extends into the source research report but essentially outlines the following:

  • That, for each young person, a huge variety of contextual factors play differing roles in shaping their views on their careers possibilities. Parents, socio-economic background, peers, media and social media and other trusted adults can all play some part in a young person constructing a flight path and dismissing non desirable destinations
  • That the sheer number of possible options open to young people leads to a wealth of information across multitudes of providers. This wildly confusing landscape causes young people to retract and be hesitant to engage and prefer to stick to well trodden paths. They struggle to find information that they think will aid their decisions and find the information impersonal and hard to contextualize to their own lives.

Throughout the document popular behavioral psychology writers such as Daniel Kahneman are referenced (and the work in his book “Thinking, Fast & Slow” on decision bias and different judgement systems is very pertinent) but it was the work of Barry Schwartz that sprung to my mind.

Who theorizes that

  • A choice architecture system with many options to choose from can cause paralysis especially when the choices have been built up to be ‘important’
  • And that, the variety of choice leads the individual to believe that there must a choice that is a perfect fit for them. When the choice disappoints, the dissatisfaction for the individual is greater as they curse their (or the advice frameworks) inability to find the ‘correct’ choice for them (Which many would agree is consistent with the stereotypical adult reflection on past careers interventions).

To my mind though, it is noticeable that some elements you would expect at least a passing reference to are missing from the Insights Team report. When looking at how young people engage with career decisions, it is odd that any reference to the wealth of publications on career theory is absent. As anyone who has waded through Unit 3 of the Level 6 careers qualification will attest, plenty has been written on careers theory. Perhaps this decision was taken as the report only focuses on a specific age section of the employability journey while career theory can take a more holistic approach. Even then though, there is much the Team could have taken from Holland (1997), the importance Super’s (1953) Life Span theory places on “self concept shaped by feedback by the external world” or Gottfredon’s (1981) theory of Circumscription and Compromise considering the Career Enterprise Company’s overall aim of improving social mobility. There is also the disregard for the kind of career trajectory that Krumboltz’s Happenstance theory outlines. For a report whose aim is to outline an architecture that places the choices of individual as the author in control of their story, it is perhaps understandable but still striking to omit a theory which proposes that it is not even desirable for this to be the case.

There is also the lack of reference to the psychology of habit. Career decisions are not taken by individuals as single events in a vacuum. The habit loops of an individual will already be affecting their engagement with education and possible adult influencers well before career choices are tasked to be made. The work of Charles Duhigg and the concept of feedback loops


could have added value and helped place the behavioral psychology of choice into the wider context of a young person’s experience and how to positively interject into this.

Published simultaneously was the response to the research by the Careers & Enterprise Company which contains proposed actions such as disseminating further research and data such as longitudinal earnings figures to help individuals make more informed decisions. They also propose to convene an experts group to spread ‘advice’ statements on what works. The Company also sees a remit for itself in communicating advice to schools and CEIAG practitioners,

We will highlight key messages, alerting schools and colleges to the types of conversations that young people should be having and when they should be having them; the types of information they should consider in those conversations; the mistakes that young people typically make and, perhaps most importantly of all, the things that they do not need to worry about.

but that it

does not intend to provide individual advice to young people or create information tools designed to produce individualised recommendations. Our focus will be solely on high level advice i.e. advice that is true for large numbers of people.

This is slightly ironic considering the preceding thoughtful passages on ‘choice architecture’,

Personalisation is central to the creation of good choice architecture in complex scenarios. Personalisation means the degree to which the construction of choice sets and information sets is determined by what is known about an individual. Zero personalisation occurs when everybody has access to the same information and has to identify what is relevant to them. Weak personalisation occurs when information sets are created which are relevant to very large numbers of ‘average’ people – for example when information about career choices tells you about the average for a whole population of people entering into a particular career.

Which covers the nub of a paradox in the current UK Careers structure for young people. Distilling advice on the choices of individuals managing a trajectory through a hugely complex system such as the transition through education to work and beyond into career will only result in impersonal generalised statements. The report discusses the possibility of careers personalisation for young people being delivered by websites programmed with similar algorithmic processes to Amazon recommends. It acknowledges though that the bulk of responsibility of personalisation comes from the interactions with professionals involved in the day by day careers conversations, group work, trips and lessons designed to aid those young individuals. It is that very part of the process which, for all its strategic work with Enterprise Advisers and cold spot funding, the Company will remain at arm’s length from.

The tightrope of generalisation is even there, tripping up the Company in the Executive Summary

However, we can identify choices as ‘poor’ if, on clearly defined criteria such as ‘likelihood to increase earnings’, an individual has made a choice on a misconception

which fails to acknowledge that a misconception does not automatically lead to failure. A learner could choose a course on false information, love that course, be nourished by meeting like-minded people on that course and find happy, fulfilling work in the course area after graduating. A choice based on ‘wrong’ information can still turn out ‘right’: it’s a complex world and, as with general medical advice, there are always exceptions to the rule.

All of the strands of the Careers & Enterprise Company’s work can drive engagement between young people (and parents) and exploring careers decisions; bringing businesses into schools can illuminate job roles, publishing earnings data can lead to greatly informed decisions, sign posting ‘approved’ advice and notifying important calendar times can all help clear the fog of the unknown. It is though, the balances to strike between acknowledging complexity and simplification, between generalisation and personalisation and good advice and diktat that the Careers Company will have to find to succeed.

Hat tip to Tristram’s blog for bringing this report to my attention.