Gender, Work and Flexible Careers Across the Life Course

Friday, 3 July 2015: 2:15 PM-3:45 PM
TW1.2.03 (Tower One)
Jennifer Tomlinson, University of Leeds, Leeds, United Kingdom
Marian Baird, University of Sydney, Sydney, Australia
Peter Berg, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI
Rae Cooper, University of Sydney, Sydney, Australia
This paper aims to offer a 21st century perspective on the intersection of careers and flexibility across the life course. While many contributions on gender and work of late focus on precarious and/or flexible jobs, we shift the focus to ask: What are the conditions under which flexible and sustainable careers can develop and flourish? And in what ways might more sustainable careers be beneficial for gender equality in the labour market?

This paper aims to foster review recent research on gender, flexibility and careers and encourage new analytical approaches to studying the concepts and intersection of flexibility and careers. Specifically, the overarching focus is to provide a space to examine the meaning of flexible careers from different disciplinary perspectives and to question the extent to which careers can be forged and maintained at different points across the life course in economic contexts of increased precarity and gender inequality. In doing so, we focus on what is perhaps the one of the greatest tensions in contemporary labour markets and societies – how to combine the social and economic need for life-long work opportunity and development (careers) with the need for continuous adjustments to the supply for and demand of labour in space, time and function (flexibility).

To date much contemporary literature has focused on individual agency in debates on “boundaryless” careers (Arthur, 1994) where individuals are increasingly mobile and self-directed (Gubler, Arnold and Coombs 2014). However, we see individuals still very much bounded by wider economic and social contexts that shape career orientations (Rodrigues and Guest 2010; Rodrigues, Guest and Budjanovcanin 2013) and, critically, shape the career realities of individuals across the life course. By focusing on flexibility and sustainability within different organisational, occupational, and institutional contexts, we aim to overcome some of the problems associated with the boundaryless careers debate (see Rodrigues and Guest 2010).

For example, in a context where economic turbulence shapes the realities of working life for individuals across the life course, perhaps most notably women, the old and the young, as they transition into and out of employment (and different forms of employment), does the notion of a boundaryless career really do justice the complex realities of individuals’ career experiences? We argue not. Rather it is the case that individuals, at different points across the life course, are increasingly shaped by institutional dynamics (Piszczek and Berg 2014). What is arguably more important is how we can better understand the ways in which institutions and changing economic conditions have the capacity to shape and impact individuals’ careers, and likewise the means through which individuals can equip themselves to adapt to changing social and economic environments. We call for analyses sensitive to three actors/stakeholders: individuals, states and employers, and pose a number of future directions for research on the intersection of gender, flexibility and careers.