As a part of my work on professional autonomy I have been interviewing professionals age 55 and over and asking them what they see as the future of professional autonomy in their fields.. These professionals, some retired and some still working, usually tell me they had a fair amount of autonomy in their careers but do not foresee that same level of autonomy for those who follow them.
The two college professors I interviewed believe their profession is losing the high degree of professional self-direction that used to make the life of a college professor so attractive. The doctor I interviewed is not happy about the increasing restrictions he faces in his profession and feels that the situation will be even worse in the future. These perceptions from a very limited sample do not reflect the views and aspirations of younger professionals, who have not yet been interviewed for this project. Are these comments just the typical remarks of an older generation that life and work and love were brighter and stronger back when giants roamed the earth–namely when they were young giants? Or is there more here than a wistful regret that life isn’t the way it used to be?
I think the people I interviewed aren’t paranoid or suffering from clinical depression. (After all, they did have the motivation to agree to be interviewed by a former college administrator.) They could point to specific areas of their jobs where things were changing and not for the better. The college professors pointed to the growth of part-time faculty at the expense of full-time faculty, who usually possess a higher commitment to the institutions and the students, and to the growth of more reporting requirements. The doctor I interviewed pointed to the growing power of insurance companies and “managers” of the health care process.
For medicine, higher education, and many other fields, a growing number of studies point precisely at these trends. Even those not reading this professional literature or its more boiled-down versions in places like the New York Times or the Economist must notice that computerization and information technology are profoundly changing the workplace in ways that are profoundly upsetting to many people.
I have not yet interviewed younger professionals, but I ask myself what I would do if I were starting again as an English professor. I have also asked this question of the people I interviewed. One respondent told me that the young need to keep their options open in ways we did not feel were necessary when starting our careers. They must understand that they may need to move before their job is moved out from under them or that they may need to switch careers. (This respondent believes that academic tenure is doomed.) These options include banding together with other professionals to fight back through professional associations, direct political involvement in choosing and electing candidates, and in some cases unions.
Young professionals also need to understand clearly what exactly they can contribute to their students, patients, or clients that a friendly robot can’t do (or at least what we now conceive such a robot can do.) Most professionals pride themselves on their professional expertise, but for those whom they serve their patience, empathy, coaching ability, and judgement are now far more important. Any smart robot can write still another mediocre piece of literary criticism. It is much more difficult to convince an insecure community college student that she can write.