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Preparing Students for Future Work Using Narrative Approaches

Updated: Mar 7

Michael J. Stebleton, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities

Gary E. Peter, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities

 

Keywords: Work, Career Development, Narrative Writing

Key Statement: Given the uncertainty of future work for graduates, educators can be career influencers by integrating career-related projects, including narrative writing assignments, into the curriculum.

 



Introduction


The world of work continues to change. Consider the following predictions: Tomorrow’s college graduates will likely hold 20 to 30 different jobs across 8 to 10 industries (McGowan & Shipley, 2020). In the future, graduates will be rewarded for movement and agility (Cadigan, 2021), rather than stability and loyalty. By 2025, the economy will have created over 133 million jobs that do not exist today, according to the World Economic Forum. Lifespans are likely to change, with the average kindergartener today living to be more than 100 years old (Carstensen, 2021). How do we prepare students for these changes?

 

These statistics are staggering, but there is ample opportunity for postsecondary educators to support students as they make the transition from college to career, despite the changing nature of the workforce. Some of these initiatives can be intentionally integrated into the curriculum, irrespective of the discipline. We contend that all educators should consider responsibility for students’ career education. Faculty and instructors, through intentional curriculum design, play critical roles in supporting students to prepare for seismic shifts in future work.

 


Image courtesy of Wix.


The Role of Career Influencers

 

Many individuals are undergoing a reevaluation of work, the values placed on career, and the meaning of work as a result of the pandemic and other global shifts. Educators, including student affairs professionals, can play important roles as career influencers as students embark on these considerations (Stebleton & Ho, 2023). Ho (2019) defined career influencers as “post-secondary professionals who informally provide career-related advice, guidance, and/or counselling” (p. 2). Career influencer functions can include advising, guiding, counseling, teaching, advocating, external liaising, and leading (Stebleton & Ho, 2023). Career can be defined broadly as a constellation of life roles, with paid work serving as one of those life roles (Super, 1990). Career influencers can also coach students by providing holistic messages about how “nonpaid” work, or various life roles can be part of the career planning process. Perhaps most importantly, career influencers can nudge students to be curious, to ask questions, and to engage in active exploration around questions of purpose and work (Ibarra, 2023). In this piece, we focus on the teaching function by sharing results of integrating career-based lessons and projects directly into an undergraduate course, OLPD 2811: Societies of the Future: Changing Work Contexts.

 

  

Overview of Course

 

OLPD 2811 explores issues and questions specifically related to significant shifts and changes in the way work will be done in the years ahead, including the role of advancing technology and artificial intelligence. Following is an excerpt from the syllabus:

 

The course will be organized around three main units, each guided by a specific question that we will aim to address. Unit 1 will address the question “What is work?” --and how do we pursue and find work that is personally meaningful to us. Unit II explores: “How do we work currently, and how might that change in the future?” As a part of this unit, we will discuss current workplace trends and the best ways to work in an ever-shifting society, especially post-pandemic. Unit III will examine the question, “How do we best prepare ourselves (including college graduates) for these seismic shifts in our ever-changing workplace?"

 

We decided to integrate a series of writing projects into the course (the “narrative” reference in the title). Although not designated as a writing-intensive course, OLPD 2811 involves several writing assignments for students where students can engage in the writing process (e.g., editing, rewriting).  The assignment which is described below could also be adapted in other types of courses in other disciplines where students may be engaging in future planning as it relates to setting work and career goals. We encourage educators to modify the writing project to meet the needs of the students, while aligning with the discipline and goals for the course (e.g., health education, music theory, business).

 

 

Integrating Narrative Writing

 

College students receive varied messages from teachers, parents, and the media about what it means to be successful (Stebleton, 2019). In our first assignment to begin the semester, we requested students to reflect on their own beliefs, assumptions, and messages about work and career achievement. Students are prompted to intentionally reflect on the early work messages that they may have integrated into their own lives. We asked students if these lessons align (or do not align) with their current values, goals, and beliefs. Students also considered their future selves, including personal and professional objectives. What might their work life look like beyond graduation?

 

As part of this introductory assignment, students watched Apple co-founder Steve Jobs’s famous 2005 commencement address to Stanford University graduates. In his speech, he reflected on his own path through three personal stories. In the end, Jobs encouraged graduates to focus on doing what they love and trust that it will work out. The “Just Follow Your Passion” message is a common one that many college students hear, but it is not the only perspective to consider.

 

Students also examine the other side of the argument and discuss texts that push back on the “do what you love” mantra by contending that it is impractical, exploitative, and misleading (Cech, 2021). They further explore readings that propose alternative ways of attaining a satisfying lifefocusing on purpose rather than passion, for instance, or that finding meaning in one’s life is preferable to chasing happiness, which is fleeting. These discussions form the groundwork for students’ first formal writing assignment.

 

To help develop the essay, students are given a detailed handout outlining the goals of the assignment, as well as specific criteria that will be used to evaluate their work, including clear organization and an identifiable thesis; effective analysis and synthesis of source materials from class; and good mechanics, including correct citation of sources. Students are provided time in class to brainstorm and discuss ideas and later share a first draft with classmates for peer review. Feedback is shared with students based on a grading rubric provided to students at the beginning of the unit.

 

 

Student Examples and Feedback

 

The responses to the assignment and the issues it presents are as varied as the students themselves. For some, the value of “do what you love” remains mostly unchanged, with students still committed to the goal of finding the “ideal.” Others, upon reflection, find themselves now questioning the mantra’s value. Many students, regardless of major or discipline, struggle with the balance of finding careers that make a significant impact, while also providing a decent income. Some students write about how work and career comprise one aspect of their identity, not their entire identity (Stolzoff, 2023). Other students welcome the distinction between purpose and passion. Following are two examples of student reflection on their meaning of work, both of which were written during the pandemic, a time of great reflection for many.

 

"The idea of ‘purpose over passion’ really has me stirring. Throughout my education, I’ve been prepped, served, and propositioned with the idea that I must choose one. I must solidify one passion, one purpose, and one career. How lame is that?! I want more. I want more for my life than to do one thing, to learn one thing or to be one thing. I feel as though the idea of passion is singular, whereas purpose is complex.”

 

Another student reflected on their career goals by writing in their self-narrative project:

 

“As I grow as an individual, I am confident that my career goals will shift, at least a little bit, and I am working on becoming more comfortable with this. I am excited to see where I will be in one year, in five years, and in ten. I am hoping not to chase after a dream job. Instead, I plan on keeping an open mind and working in roles that allow me to develop new skills. By finding meaning in my work, I think I will be able to develop my passions, not search for them.”

 

Near the end of the course, we ask students to reflect on the semester and what they gained from the course. The following student quote seems to capture what we hope to be a major takeaway (the mission) of OLPD 2811.

 

 “Instructors and academic advisers also play a role in the process of helping students identifying interests and strengths. Instructors and academic advisors should talk about jobs related to the subject that their students are studying. Through talking about the relevance of the subject that students are studying, students can understand how it connects to the real world. I also think it should be required that students take a course like OLPD 2811 sometime during their undergraduate studies because the course allows students to better understand what they want their future career to look like.”

 

 

Looking Ahead

 

One of the great challenges and rewards of teaching a course like 2811 is that the nature of work, as well as its future, is constantly evolving (Blustein & Flores, 2023). With mounting changes (e.g., the prevalence of remote work, workers’ demands for more flexible work arrangements, the push for living wages and decent work, and ChatGPT), the employment of today bears little resemblance to the work of even five years ago. Today’s students need to be nimble and adaptable and have a clear understanding of their own beliefs and goals to be both successful and satisfied in wherever their future of work takes them (Kellerman & Seligman, 2023).

 



Discussion Questions

 

  1. What types of career-related content or assignments might you integrate into your own curriculum?

  2. What are potential advantages and disadvantages of using autobiographical narrative writing assignments in undergraduate courses?

  3. How might the future of work be shifting in your own discipline, and what are  1 or 2 steps that students might take to prepare for these changes?

 

 

References

 

Blustein, D. L., & Flores, L. Y. (Eds.). (2023). Rethinking work: Essays on building a better workplace. Routledge.


Cadigan, S. (2021). Workquake: Embracing the aftershocks of Covid-19 to create a better model of working. Amplify Publishing.


Carstensen, L. (2022, April). The new map of life. The Stanford Center on Longevity. Stanford University. https://longevity.stanford.edu/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/new-map-of-life-full-report.pdf


Cech, E. (2021). The trouble with passion: How searching for fulfillment at work fosters inequality. University of California Press.

Ibarra, H. (2023). Working identity: Unconventional strategies for reinventing your career (2nd ed.). Harvard Business Review Press.


Kellerman, G. R., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2023). Tomorrowmind: Thriving at work with resilience, creativity, and connection—Now and in an uncertain future. Atria Books.


McGowan, H. E., & Shipley, C. (2020). The adaptation advantage: Let go, learn fast, and thrive in the future of work. Wiley.


Stebleton, M. J. (2019). Moving beyond passion: Why “Do What You Love” advice for college students needs reexamination. Journal of College and Character, 20(2), 163–171. https://doi.org/10.1080/2194587X.2019.1591289 


Stebleton, M. J., & Ho, C. (2023). Career development is everyone’s responsibility: Envisioning educators as career influencers. Journal of College and Character, 24(3), 189–196. https://doi.org/10.1080/2194587X.2023.2224577 


Stolzoff, S. (2023). The good enough job: Reclaiming life from work. Penguin.


Super, D. E. (1990). A life-span, life-span approach to career development. In D. B. L. Brook (Ed.), Career choice and development:  Applying contemporary theories to practice (pp. 197-261). Jossey-Bass. 


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