— Cultural Sources of Newness

No newness from knowledge workers?

A new German study of highflyers in business and academia comes to disturbing conclusions: the structural conditions of work and careers in both spheres may well be stifling the preconditions required for creativity and innovation. The authors, Christiane Funken, Jan-Christoph Rogge and Sinje Hörlin, end their book Vertrackte Karrieren (Campus 2015), with the warning that “not much newness can be expected in future” from these knowledge workers (p. 228; my translation).


Vertrackte Karrieren

Vertrackte Karrieren, Campus Verlag 2015

How did they come to this conclusion? The book is based on interviews with 31 successful young managers in large companies and 20 equally impressive post-doc level academics in universities or research centers in Germany. At the time of the interviews in 2012 they were between 30 and 40 years of age. It is the first study that looks in detail at knowledge workers in both spheres. The research questions that drove the study are:

“What kind of career idea and strategy do young managers and post-docs pursue in academia and business? What experiences have they already had on the way? How do these experiences affect their future (career) plans? Are there differences between men and women? And which similarities and differences appear between the two spheres?” (p. 10, my translation).

The book is fascinating from beginning to end, so I recommend it to anyone who can read German. The review of the literature on the historical models that still shape expectations and structures in academia and business as well as on the developments in both spheres are rich and clearly written. (I will not try to summarize the arguments here, they need more time and space than a blog permits.) Then the reader delves into the lives of the respondents, hears their voices in well-chosen quotations, and discovers that the researchers identified three groups in both worlds.


My Starbuck-based office today in Seattle

My Starbucks-based office today in Seattle

For non-German readers I have taken a seat in an ideal location to summarize the characterization of the groups: a Starbucks cafe in Seattle, where highflyers are grabbing energy with which to work.  Translating the terms chosen by the authors is a challenge. Already the title of the book is tricky. Vertrackte Karrieren. You can guess that “Karrieren” means Careers. But Vertrackt” = “imbroglio, complicated state of affairs.” Not so snappy but it captures the state of affairs nicely. I wish I could have been a fly on the wall while the research team debated the names they gave to the groups in the two worlds. My guess is that if they had been thinking ahead to a best-seller in English, they would probably have come up with different terms.

The authors distinguish between three responses to different features of the current environment for corporate knowledge workers who are expected to become ever more intrinsically motivated and capable of dedicating all their energy to achieve high performance goals:

  • The “Kritische” = ‘critical ones’ who want a corporate career but are frustrated by the rigid conditions in the organization that impede their ability to meet their needs to work autonomously and desire to implement the changes they consider necessary to achieve high standards, so they are considering leaving (and possibly going to smaller organizations in which they hope to have a greater impact)
  • The equally ambitious “Flüchtige” = ‘evaders’, who have discovered that the rapid changes in organizations open opportunities they can grab in which they can make a difference, so they do not pursue a clear career plan but are confident they will make their way in the organization (often referring to a boss who has created space in an otherwise rigid system)
  • The “Entschleuniger” = ‘deaccelerators’ (sounds great in German, not yet in English), for whom the experience of ever more intense demands and time pressures make the idea of a career unappealing. They expect to continue to work but not to “give their all” to the organization in order to have a better life-work balance than a corporate career currently permits.

“Giving one’s all” is what academia has always expected, because it is a calling to which one dedicates one’s life selflessly and entirely. The system has traditionally imposed severe tests on aspiring academics to see whether they really have a true calling, but the changing conditions have made the pursuit of this profession increasingly difficult. The three groups of academics all perceive the situation in their world in the same way—namely as an incredibly intense competition in a growing pool of post-docs for very few professorships, with no attractive alternative career options. (Seeking to enhance the competitiveness of their economy and their academic system, German policy makers have sought to counteract the brain drain of young academics going abroad by introducing numerous programs for doctoral students and post-docs, but the number of professorships has not increased apace.) The high-potential academics in the sample respond differently to the bleak situation:

  • Hoffnungsvolle” = “Hopeful ones” are confident that they will get a professorship. The interviews show that a crucial distinguishing feature of this group is that they have particularly good support systems, both from their professors and in their private lives.
  • Fatalisten” = “Fatalists” are torn by self-doubt but intend to stay in the game as long as possible.
  • Spielverweigerer” = “Game-leavers” who decide that it is not worth playing the academic game around gaining recognition and reputation and therefore expect to abandon academia in the short- to medium term.

You may now want to know at least three things:

  1. Whether gender matters (read the book, the answers are there!)
  2. Which group you belong to (an entrepreneurial academic could create and market a self-diagnosis tool).
  3. How similar/different things are in other countries (time for an international comparative study, but first, time to leave Starbucks and look up into the beauty of Seattle in Spring).
Cherry Blossoms in Seattle

Cherry Blossoms in Seattle