The meaning and purpose of work

Work is as old as the history of mankind. Work (as vocation, i.e., habitual occupation as a means of livelihood) occurs within a social context-a context characterised by patterns of beliefs and ways of thinking. Fixed mental attitudes (popularly called 'mindsets') engendered by social and moral frames of reference give a particular colouring and interpretation to the meaning and purpose of work. Psychologists use the term social cognitions to describe social patterns of thinking that have become habitual across social groups (Bandura, 1989). Social cognitions seem to have played a significant role in the evolution of work as well. Historically, ideologies that prevailed during particular periods created what we have referred to as social-cognitive environments (Arulmani & Nag-Arulmani 2004). Examples of such periods are the Protestant Reformation and the Industrial Revolution in Europe and the Ashrama and the caste systems in ancient India. Within these environments, values are attributed to work and occupations. Social-cognitive environments thus foster the evolution of a work ethic - a conglomeration of mindsets about work-which could then guide and influence people's work behaviour. For example, a certain work ethic may place a positive moral value on hard work based on the belief that work has innate value and must be pursued for its own sake. A different social-cognitive environment may promote a work ethic wherein some forms of work maybe attributed with a higher level of prestige than others and entire clusters of occupations may be infused with high value, or discredited as not valuable.

The birth of the notion of a 'career'

It is with the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th Century that the issue of matching people for jobs first surfaced. The industry needed workers with specific traits and abilities, while the potential worker needed guidance toward jobs for which he or she was best suited. It is in response to these needs, at this point in the evolution of work, that Vocational Guidance surfaced as a discipline. Frank Parsons, who is today acknowledged as the father of Vocational Psychology, developed for the first time a method to suit the new industrial work order (Parsons 1909). His approach assumed that persons could be matched for jobs on the basis of their traits, abilities and talents. People now began to approach work and livelihood as a field of activity within which they could follow a path of growth and reach for higher levels of personal development. Thus was born the notion of career.

The forces of industrialisation and mechanisation have had a somewhat similar impact on work behaviour in the Indian context as they have had in the West. The rapid changes in the world of work in the sub-continent especially since independence has led to increases in opportunities and the breaking down of the older social mechanisms for occupational role allocation. Today, the challenges of career decision-making for the young school leaver and college student are as much of a reality in India as it is in the Western world.

A career rarely however bursts abruptly upon the individual. A person's orientation to work and then to career is something that develops over a period of time. Facilitating the process of career discovery for the young person requires a perceptive understanding of these forces. The following section of this paper discusses the linkages between two of these forces.

Educational systems and labour market forces: Is a dynamic partnership possible?

The answer to this question is an unequivocal 'yes'. The educational system could prepare the young person to approach career development as a mechanism for learning, personal growth and potential realisation. However, a recent survey that we conducted in 15 different parts of India indicated that the reality seems to be quite different (WORCC-IRS, 2006). At the high school and higher secondary stage, educational systems are failing to facilitate informed career choices. Instead, career choice is often reduced to a response to the advertising, public relations and short term interests of employers.

The more recent trend of educational systems coming under the control of labour market forces is even more alarming. On the one hand it is commendable that universities are designing and mooting 'job-oriented courses'. On the other hand, subjects that are not immediately job-oriented seem to be accorded increasingly lower priorities. While it is true that India is at last beginning to show sustained economic growth it must be remembered that education is not the handmaiden of the labour market. The purpose of education is not merely to prepare a qualified work force. Instead, the purpose of education is to facilitate the individual's development as a person and as a responsible and contributing member of society. Strong educational leadership at the school and higher secondary level would prepare students with skills to make appropriate decisions rather than allowing their choices to be inappropriately influenced by what is currently a boom sector in the labour market.

Poorly informed choices made at the high school and higher secondary level could have a cascading effect seen in the short run on the outcomes of higher education. The consequences of a certain course of study could belatedly dawn upon the young person after he or she has entered the course. In some cases this may lead to dropping out of further education. Where the family is able to afford an expensive alteration of the young person's career preparation the individual may begin a new course all over again. In families where resources are limited however, course completion would be reduced to assiduously 'completing what one has started'. The number of young people who do express dissatisfaction with career choices is reaching alarmingly high levels. It is often said that an important function of further education is to prepare the young person for the labour market by equipping the individual with knowledge and skills. A vital point that is often missed is that knowledge and skills for a set of occupational tasks that are not in some way linked with the individual's interests and talents would be sterile and bereft of a sense of meaning and purpose. It is here that the relevance of a comprehensive careers education programme becomes sharply evident. Careers education could in effect be the bridge between education and the labour market.

Integrating career education into the school curriculum

Career education is not an event, it is a process. Ideally, the career education service must be an integral part of the overall curriculum and implemented as a timetabled activity over the course of the year. Our research and field experience has led us to the development of the rudiments of a model for careers education in the Indian situation that we call the Career Preparation Process Model (CPPM). Interested readers are referred to our original writings for a more detailed account of the model (Arulmani and Nag-Arulmani, 2004) while we devote the rest of this article to a sketch of how this model could be used to facilitate the young person's career discovery. The Career Discovery Equation, presented below, is a translation of the CPPM to the applicational level.

The career discovery equation

This is a framework that could guide the implementation of services for careers education within the Indian school and college context. Accordingly, careers education could comprise four interlocking components as described below:

Facilitating self-understanding

Self-understanding for effective career decision-making focuses on the following themes:

Personal interests and personal aptitudes

Comprehensive career education employs methods whereby interests and aptitudes are assessed and compared with each other.

Social Cognitions and Career Beliefs

These are strongly held convictions about the process of career choice and the world of work. Careers education would address prevailing career beliefs and highlight their impact on career development.

Tests as a mechanism to facilitate self-understanding

Using psychological tests to identify an individual's career interests and aptitudes has been and continues to be a topic of intense controversy. Such devices are useful when they are:

  • standardised and statistically validated for the group for which they are intended
  • age appropriate
  • administered by a qualified psychologist / counsellor
  • scored accurately
  • interpreted on the basis of accurately developed norms

Tests are sometimes accorded (both by the counsellor and the client) a status of infallibility. A psychological test is merely a tool that could yield information. It is vital that careers education is not reduced to a variety of test taking exercises and that the career aspirant is not limited to the results of aptitude and interest tests.

Facilitating an understanding of the world of work

The world of work comprises all the different career opportunities open to the young person. Career choices are often limited to the careers that the young person knows or has heard about. Facilitating an understanding of the world of work widens the young career chooser's horizons.

Facilitating the development of career alternatives

Career Alternatives emerge from the information the student has gained about herself and about the world of work. Students sometimes commit the error of planning for just one career. Career Alternatives are a set of two or three options that provide back-up options should the first choice fail to materialise.

Facilitating career preparation

The career development plan

This is a clearly enunciated blueprint for career development that the career aspirant develops along with the counsellor. This includes defining careers chosen, developing a description of the path leading to these careers, listing of the eligibility criteria, entrance examinations, important addresses and dates and deadlines that the career aspirant must follow.

Skill Literacy and Work Experience

Promoting skill literacy is an essential aspect of career preparation. Skill literacy refers to helping the career aspirant gain work experience through internships and placements.


In the absence of effective systems for careers education, the young person's career decision-making could be thwarted by various psycho-social, educational and socio-economic factors. Without the insights of introspection and exploration, these influences could lead the individual away from suitable choices. Students who have gone through comprehensive careers education are far more discerning in their career choices. Research has also revealed that individuals who make career choices based on personal interests and abilities show significantly higher levels of job satisfaction and are more productive workers.

No longer ascribed a position of under-development, India is perceived today to be a developing nation. At the dawn of a new era the opportunities in the world of work are immense. Effective methods of guidance and counselling could play a vital role in drawing the young person closer to these opportunities.

Dr. Gideon Arulmani, Founder-Trustee of The Promise Foundation, Bangalore, is a clinical psychologist who holds an M. Phil in Medical and Social Psychology from NIMHANS, Bangalore and a doctoral degree in career and counselling psychology from the University of Portsmouth, USA. He has, for the last fifteen years, conducted research that would contribute to preventing emotional distress and enhancing psychological well being among adolescents and young people.

Reference List

Arulmani, G & Nag-Arulmani, S.(2004). Career Counselling: A Handbook. New Delhi, India: Tata McGraw Hill.
Bandura, A. (1989) Human Agency in Social Cognitive Theory. American Psychologist, 44(9), pp. 1175-1185
Parsons, Frank. (1909). Choosing a Vocation. Boston: Houghton Mifflin
Work Orientations and Responses to Career Choices: Indian Regional Survey. (2006). The Promise Foundation, Bangalore, India
Watts, A G. (1996). International Perspective. In: Watts, A G, Law, B, Killeen J, Kidd J, & Hawthorne, R (Eds). Rethinking Careers Exploration and Guidance: Theory and Practice (pp. 365-379). London: Routledge