A comparative study conducted by Sally Power of Oxford and Sciences-Po graduates shows that while the British students were seeking self-fulfilment around the globe, their French counterparts were more interested in serving France. The contrasts are likely to reflect the different structures of opportunity for elite employment within the two countries.
It is now widely accepted that globalisation has rendered national boundaries and loyalties less significant – particularly for those ‘bright young things’ graduating from ‘top universities’ to compete for ‘top jobs’ in the big multinational companies.
Our research suggests that this is not the case everywhere. Interviews with a sample of ‘elite’ students from England and France studying roughly equivalent courses at roughly equivalent universities (PPE and History at Oxford and Public Administration at Sciences-Po) reveal striking differences in how they envisage their futures. While our Oxford students search for self-fulfilment around the globe, our French graduates seem to want nothing more than to serve France.
Oxford students and the search for self-fulfilment
Our Oxford respondents speak enthusiastically of their futures. However, they do not seem interested in identifying particular occupations and career paths. Rather, work seems to be part of a personal life project:
… it is very me-centred I suppose. I think I would do whatever and choose to go and work wherever I thought I would get the most benefit in terms of personal development.
The word ‘challenge’ keeps cropping up the main criteria for fulfilment at work – and boredom is to be avoided at all costs. Future plans are inevitably very fluid:
You should be prepared for the flexibility to actually follow your passion. Where the opportunities arise, to sort of follow them where they take you.
My plan is just to keep moving forward, keep doing things that are interesting, that I can learn from and will be helpful.
This rather rootless and nomadic search for experiences not only requires moving from employer to employer, from job to job, but also from country to country. The overwhelming majority express a strong desire to work abroad:
I’d like to work in the United States, for example, that would be just fantastic … I don’t see myself as having particular loyalty to the British firms.
In general, there is little sense of civic responsibility and none of national loyalty. Some might interpret this emphasis on self-fulfilment as selfishness on the part of our Oxford graduates. However, such a conclusion is too simple. Many express real interest in social issues and wish to ‘give something back’. What is notable, though, is that this ‘giving some back’ is seen to be peripheral to work. It is more often to be undertaken alongside employment either as voluntary activities or as a secondment (for example through Teach First) before embarking on a ‘proper’ career. This might indicate a potential decoupling of social obligation and occupation.
French graduates serving France
The narratives of our French graduates stand in stark contrast to those of our English students. They too seek personal fulfilment through work but think this can really only be achieved through working for the ‘public interest’. Far from being decoupled, work and social obligation go hand in hand. Self-development is inextricably linked to a future in the public sector and the betterment of France. Public administration is spoken of with passion:
I’d be the happiest person in the world if I ever become a prefect at 50.
I feel it is in my soul to work for the public service.
I think it is my calling.
Whereas sentiments of serving one’s country are entirely absent from our Oxford narratives, they feature strongly in the Parisian accounts. Several of our respondents made a distinction between their enthusiasm for public administration and patriotism. Nevertheless, ultimately, it is all about serving France.
Public service is royal, national. It remains the most French and national path.
This allegiance to France and its civil service does not mean that our graduates are uninterested in working abroad. As with their Oxford counterparts, many have already had overseas internships and plan to take up postings abroad. What is noticeably different, though, is that when our Sciences-Po graduates talk of working abroad, they are still working ‘for France’, either in embassies or for French companies. The ‘footloose’ expatriate is an object of scorn – driven by a desire for money alone:
The expatriates are often people who do not have high enough pay in France. When they are abroad, their pay is multiplied by three: so suddenly they find a superior way of life than they were used to in France. Since there is no gradual progression in their revenue, they have a nouveau riche way of doing things. They show off, they are flamboyant and this is not my style at all … I do not want my life to be like this.
The contrasts between our Parisian and our Oxford narratives are striking. Our Sciences-Po graduates are, in general, firmly committed to public administration, albeit in its elite ranks. They see this not only as a career, but as a means of fulfilment. To this extent, their career and their sense of social obligation are in perfect alignment.
What does it mean?
There are clear differences in the ways in which our French and British graduates articulate and justify their aspirations for the future. Perhaps these simply reflect the social acceptability of particular discourses in the two different countries? Our French respondents are happy to talk about their patriotism and loyalty to their country in ways which it would be difficult to imagine British students doing. However, while the differences may reflect what can be said and not just what can be thought – even this is likely to have some deeper significance.
The contrasts are also likely to reflect the different structures of opportunity for elite employment within the two countries. In the UK, successive neoliberal reforms have led to a ‘hollowing out’ of the state. Rather than going into the ‘old’ elites such as the armed forces and civil service, the ascendant new elites are in private sector occupations such as law, accountancy and corporate banking. The civil service may be suffering the same fate as the Church, which saw a decline in the number of elite graduates entering the profession during the second half of the twentieth century as its level of power and influence lessened. In France, the public administration remains strong – not just in terms of numbers but in influence. Elite careers can still be found within the civil service. And while the winds of neoliberalism blow over France too, they have not penetrated as deeply into the functions of the state. The ideals of Rousseau’s social contract can still be found in the discourse of our young French graduates.
This article is based on research published in The Social Construction of Talent: A Comparative Study of Education, Recruitment and Occupational Elites. A project funded through the ESRC Centre on Skills, Knowledge and Organisational Performance (SKOPE) based in Oxford and Cardiff Universities www.skope.ox.ac.uk.
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About the Author
Professor Sally Power is Director of WISERDEducation – a programme of education research and capacity-building located in the Wales Institute of Social and Economic Research and Data (WISERD). She also directs NESET – the Network of Experts on the Social aspects of Education and Training which is funded by the European Commission to provide evidence on issues of equity and inclusion in education.