Understanding Careers: The Metaphors of Working Lives

Stuart Hannabuss (Aberdeen Business School, Aberdeen, UK)

Library Review

ISSN: 0024-2535

Article publication date: 23 May 2008




Hannabuss, S. (2008), "Understanding Careers: The Metaphors of Working Lives", Library Review, Vol. 57 No. 5, pp. 394-396. https://doi.org/10.1108/00242530810875186



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Having been saturated over the years with the rhetoric of professionalism and the advantages of self‐improvement, many readers of books about careers (and more widely about human resource management) approach them sceptically and come away disappointed. Two things change all that: one where and when people discuss real jobs, and the other when they are authentically trying to understand what real work, real jobs, real careers actually mean.

Setting whatever “the real” means aside for now, and reflecting on how in recent years theory and practice seems to have shown more and more interest in qualitative insights into work (like how meaning is managed and power is negotiated), new books on career management – and this is one – recommend we use metaphors as ways of understanding about work, jobs, and careers. Given the top‐down history of such thinking, and what is often a dirigiste approach to education and training as professional cadres wonder whether they have still got control, it comes as a pleasant breath of realism and common‐sense together to pick up Kerr Inkson's book.

Understanding Careers plays several roles – helping us to understand metaphors in careers just as Morgan did in organizations, mediating and consolidating a wealth of qualitative organizational and career‐related research (chapters have excellent lists of further reading), providing most timely advice on career counselling (good for specialists and an underplayed field), and offering numerous case‐studies (of real and plausible people) for students to examine. This is a book for advanced under‐graduate at graduate courses in personal and organizational development and career management, and takes an approach likely to interest sociologists, psychologists, counsellors, students of HRM, and the general reader. For anyone, too, with an interest in organizational narrative/rhetoric and culture, this will be of real interest. Its likely destination is the academic and college library, and business sections of other libraries. Publisher's notes tell us that there is an instructor manual with CD‐ROM available though this was not seen by the reviewer.

When we speak of getting on or going up the career ladder, of a square peg in a round hole or getting stuck on the road to promotion, we deal in career metaphors. Careers are particularly suited to metaphorical treatment because they are complex things – what they are and what people engaged with them think about them (and believe others do too). Understanding and explanation, agent and stakeholder perspectives have rightly been given much more credence in recent work on and in organizations. The idea of a career as a journey or a cycle or a story is often a helpful way of representing our experience of the workplace, the work‐life balance, and the place of work and success in our lives. They are ways of making sense of work, the opportunities we get, how we got from there to here, how we coped with change and innovation, and what retrospective sense we can try to make of a working life.

Inkson (University of Otago in New Zealand) argues his case for metaphors convincingly, applying them to case‐studies as he goes along, keeping his feet in reality, acknowledging that metaphors only imperfectly describe the reality of our experience of work, distilling a lot of current research thinking, and signposting readers to well‐established and developing fields of relevance (like social policy and work demographics, gender and career management, career success and performance, congruence between personality and the job, career nomads and boundary‐less careers, career self‐management, identity research, and organizational strategies). Inkson wrote all the chapters apart from the last one – an excellent summary of career counselling and metaphor by Mary McMahon (University of Queensland) that identifies key metaphors used by clients (like drowning and tug‐of‐war) and metaphors used of/in counselling itself (like nurturing, coaching, and advocacy).

This could easily have dwindled into an indulgent commentary on metaphors we have known and other forms of recipe knowledge favoured by popular management books, but it does not: throughout, the argument is clear and unpretentious, suggesting applications, connecting the main ideas about careers (a hybrid field at best) with recognized areas like careers and change, careers and women, career anchors, personality traits and the fit with the job, transitions between roles and role innovation, the reflective value of using story to help employees understand their work, and (probably the chapter of most interest to HRM specialists on “careers as resources”) managing careers in times of change, managing the psychological contract and accepting factors like an aging society, a life of jobs rather than a job for life, and entrepreneurial and portfolio models of work.

A metaphor‐centred approach to careers fits very well into this context since it appeals and relates to today's world of work where career self‐management, traditional loyalties, expectations, and boundaries are all in a state of fast change. We use metaphors, we use narratives, we are familiar with media scripts and storylines, we both accept and distrust managerial rhetoric and promises, we aspire for autonomy, and we know we play roles at work and in the community (and that they are merging). When, then, we expect promotion and do not get it, when other people seem to have all the luck, when we look for good mentors and only occasionally find them, and when we reflect on what a “career” and a “successful career” really add up to, metaphors are woven into the fabric of meaning and language we use. We use metaphors even to understand the ways we use metaphors.

A thoughtful and topical introduction to its field, bringing together a wide range of related topics and research, clear for students and convincing for people further on (even pragmatic sceptics will get drawn in), and a timely read for all employees. Chapters all end with key points and questions and this makes the book a good training resource in library and information service setting and elsewhere. The (ethnographic) theory is there, too, if you want it, but it does not get in the way of making this a practical resource for education/training, for better understanding personal careers, and for providing a better context for managing the careers of others.


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Lakoff, G. and Johnson, M. (1980), Metaphors We Live By, Chicago University Press, Chicago, IL.

MacLennan, N. (1996), Counselling for Managers, Gower, Aldershot.

Morgan, G. (1986), Images of Organization, Sage Publications, London and Thousand Oaks, CA.

Payne, N. (2000), Narrative Therapy: An Introduction for Counsellors, Sage Publications, London and Thousand Oaks, CA.

Weick, K.E. (1995), Sensemaking in Organizations, Sage Publications, London and Thousand Oaks, CA.

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