Reflections on my grandfathers’ careers

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About the author:
Martin Gubler is the Head of the Career Research Programme at the Schwyz University of Teacher Education, Goldau, Switzerland. You can contact him at

One of the nice things about being a career researcher is that you don’t have to go far to find potential study objects – even one’s family members can provide inspiring career-related insights. Let’s look at my two grandfathers’ careers, for example:

My father’s father joined the police in Zurich as soon as he was old enough to be admitted. After a few years of compulsory patrol duty, he moved to a desk job in the police department where he worked for several decades in increasing hierarchical positions until his retirement. At the time my grandfather retired, he had reached his highest rank in the organization. Over all these years, he worked in the same office in the same building near the city centre of Zurich.

Thus, my paternal grandfather’s career environment was highly stable and predictable. His physical career mobility was extremely low. Job security was high for him; as long as he stayed loyal to the organization, he could reasonably expect to reach the age of retirement there. Career success was mainly measured objectively, that is, in terms of promotions. So, his career followed increasing hierarchical steps, and he never experienced a demotion. These hierarchical career steps were planned and initiated by the police department, not by my grandfather. Overall, therefore, my grandfather’s career shows many of the typical features of a so-called “old”, “traditional”, “organizational” career.

Now, let’s consider my maternal grandfather’s career. He grew up in a poor family in a small rural village in the Swiss countryside. My great-grandparents only had enough money to buy one bicycle. Therefore, my grandfather – unlike his older brother and despite good marks at school – could not attend secondary school in a larger village nearby. So, he left school early and started helping his father at work, without any vocational training. As a result, my grandfather eventually “inherited” three professional activities from his father and pursued all of them in parallel over the course of his career until he retired. First, in the small village where he lived, he was responsible for the local post office and for delivering mail to all the farms in the countryside. Second, he was in charge of all administrative duties when people married. Lastly, he worked as a farmer on his own inherited patches of land.

Overall, therefore, my mother’s father’s career path was not stable, hardly predictable and did not provide much economic security. He worked in parallel in various roles for various organizations, including his own business. Only performance and constant flexibility ensured his employment (and sufficient income). Career success for him did not come in terms of hierarchical promotions or much money. Instead, he was a man who loved nature and who was most happy when being outside, seeing his plants and animals grow and prosper. So, for him career success was of a mainly subjective nature. Thus, my maternal grandfather’s career matches many of the typical features of a “new”, “contemporary” career, even though he lived in rural Switzerland many decades ago. However, what might be considered a modern “portfolio career” had an absolutely serious reason. My grandfather did not freely choose his career path – his career was driven by sheer economic necessity. First, his parents’ poverty made it impossible for him to gain access to better education. Second, as a result of his subsequent relatively poor education, he was only able to work in low-paying jobs. It was only by pursuing three jobs in parallel, including the production of food on his own small farm, that he was able to provide sufficiently for his family.

My two grandfathers’ careers nicely illustrate that even though “old” careers existed in the first half of the 20th century, also some prototypical “new”, “contemporary” careers already could be found decades before these terms became fashionable in the literature. These cases may also remind us that it is important not only to look at someone’s objectively observable career path but also at an individual’s wider personal, economic and social situation to understand why he/she follows a particular career path. This may be even more relevant when studying careers across various countries (as does 5C), where cultural differences make it even more complex to understand particular career moves and decisions. Yet, lastly, these cases also show that you don’t have to look far to detect fascinating career-related stories. What about starting with a closer look at your own grandparents’ career paths?

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