Planning your education and career in uncertain times


Love or Money is about how and why we work. We work for money, of course. Most of us are not independently wealthy! But we work for other reasons as well. We hope for paid work that is interesting, that engages our passions, and that is valued in the eyes of others.

We engage in unpaid work too. We swap babysitting with other parents. We help a friend paint her apartment. We drive an aging parent or grandparent for errands or doctor’s appointments. We volunteer, learn, vote, and engage in other activities that benefit other people and wider society. Much of this work doesn’t get much value or recognition, even though it is important to our collective well-being.

Love or Money also recognizes that we don’t all have the same choices or chances when it comes to getting work we love, that also pays the bills.[1] Some of us do very well. Some of us do all the right things but stay trapped in poverty or unfulfilling work. Some of us struggle to escape from family or community histories that hurt us, or offered few role models for succeeding in school or work.

Different Life Chances

Most of the messages we get about education and work say that success is determined by individual choices. This is only partially true. Of course, it is important to work hard and commit to our goals. But when we look at education and work like a sociologist — and that’s my job — we can see overall patterns that show that our choices about education and work are influenced by a lot of big things outside of our immediate control.[2] Things like:

  • gender expectations in areas like trades, engineering, nursing, and teaching
  • jobs that go to other countries
  • fewer unionized jobs, and fewer full-time, permanent jobs
  • more temporary jobs, contract jobs, and jobs without guaranteed hours
  • education that takes longer and costs more
  • automation, so that more of our work is done by machines robots, and computers

The bottom line? Even though we are told we need to “take control” of our futures and make good choices, we’re more vulnerable to “chance” than we may want to recognize.

Education and Work: What’s “Fair?”

We have strong feelings about education and jobs. We often have strong moral convictions about what we and others “deserve” based on where we work, how hard we work, and the kind of work we do. The ways in which we make these judgments have a lot to do with whether we believe the rewards of work – status and material wealth – are fairly distributed in society.

Love or Money begins with compassion for ourselves and others when our best laid plans for education and work go sideways. We live in a society that encourage us to harshly judge ourselves and others for “failures” in these critical areas. In over ten years of studying work and learning, I’ve seen shame, anxiety, frustration, fear, hope and hubris in the ways people think and talk about their career paths. I’ve struggled with my own “career identity” and seen others do the same.

Frankly, the worlds of education and work are pretty messed up. Education is costly and offers no guarantee of a “good job,” no matter what the policy makers and employment counselors say. Work itself is increasingly precarious, making it harder to achieve financial security and get on with other things in life, besides work, that might be important to us. Neither your nor I can change that in the near term. But we can have conversations and bring greater understanding to love, money, esteem, ambition, and all of the other reasons we learn and work.



[1] “Choices or Chances” was the title of my doctoral dissertation. I’ve always been interested in how much our lot in life can be attributed to individual “choices,” and how much to social conditions, or “chances.” My dissertation studied the experiences of six women who were trying to “get ahead” by completing college degrees. Although this education was providing the women with some opportunities, there were also many challenges — childcare and finances being critical — to completing diplomas and obtaining good jobs. In the end, both choices and chances influenced what they were able to achieve.

[2] In “The Sociological Imagination” (1959), C.W. Mills sought ways to help people see how their “personal troubles” were connected to “public issues.” We are using our sociological imagination when we can see and think about which aspects of a problem can be attributed to our own “choices,” and which come about as a consequence of “chances,” or where we are situated in society. Choices and chances are complicated and interconnected, as Mills observed. So we can rarely just “blame the person” or “blame society” when things don’t go well.