Job Dream

In an age of gig economies, talent stacks, and algorithmic hiring, what good is an aptitude test?

In 1911, Choosing a Vocation was published, a posthumous work by social reformer Frank Parsons, who had spent much of his career focusing on the turn-of-the-century relationship between labor, industry, and economic rationalization. It quickly became the foundational text of the then-emerging field of vocational guidance — an entire industry whose singular purpose is to help people navigate the treacherous waters of job hunting. Parsons’ theory proposed a simple, three-part understanding of how best to empower people to make choices about their own careers. A job seeker, he wrote, must possess a sense of the job and labor market; a sense of themselves, including a clear understanding of their personal traits and abilities; and an objective, rational assessment of the relationship between the first two things. The premise was simple: people work best when they are in a job that is suited both to their abilities and to their personalities.

At the time, this was a fairly new idea: Parsons’ approach suggested that identity preceded, and could guide, occupational decisions in a climate where the depersonalizing effects of regimented labor were becoming more pervasive. Looked at one way, it is a deeply human industry: about deriving meaning out of work, and matching intangibles like interests and personality with the fungible output that comes from work itself. The field became useful to employers as well. Vocational guidance works to solve an essentially logistical question: how best to fill the needs of the labor market with the stock of workers. Over the course of the 20th century, the practice of assessing personal traits to match them to a career path has become an almost scientific pursuit. In 1959, John Holland published “A Theory of Vocational Choice,” which advanced the idea of “vocational personalities” — colloquially, you probably know it as the career aptitude test.

Rather than connect you with meaningful work, a service targeting job seekers can only help you derive meaning from whatever work you manage to find

The idea of quasi-scientifically solving this problem is especially attractive when the job market is itself a source of frustration. Today, as we are constantly reminded, automation is already fundamentally transforming the labor market and eliminating many jobs. Student debt is at an unprecedented level, millennials are the poorest generation in decades, and politicians swarm like vultures, ready to finish off what’s left of the welfare state. It follows that the need to connect people with meaningful work that matches their personalities and skills will become more important as people weather the storm. But that work is increasingly unavailable, and the “dream job” is more and more a luxury aspiration.

If work — geared to your personality or not — is more difficult to come by, then what purpose does vocational guidance serve? The proposition of career guidance assumes that the problem is not a lack of jobs, but the market’s inability to connect you with them — it assumes that the work is out there in the first place. A service targeting job seekers while doing little to improve the material conditions of a precarious labor market risks offering little more than cajoling: Rather than connect you with meaningful work, it can help you derive meaning from whatever work you manage to find.

Launched in Toronto, a service called Paddle has sought to bring a startup sensibility to the field, aiming in part to provide vocational guidance geared toward the impermanent, flighty, impulsive millennial generation. “Our parents’ generation might have had two or three jobs in their career, but in our generation we already know we’re switching jobs at least 12 times in our lifetime, and most of these jobs will disappear,” said Matthew Thomas, Paddle’s co-founder, in an interview with Betakit. “It’s more important to be adaptable than to be an expert at something.”

Thomas and his partner, Nick Lovegrove, have built their academic credentials studying the phenomenon of non-linear careers, especially those increasingly common among younger workers. Their theory is an academic fleshing-out of a growing idea: that in the 21st century, a wide range of skills — a “talent stack,” or “skill stack” — rather than one highly developed skill will make you more employable and, ideally, promotable. (This idea has been expounded on at amusing length by Scott Adams, the pro-Trump creator of the comic Dilbert, who credits “talent stacking” for the success of many public figures, from Trump to Kanye to his girlfriend Kristina.) This expands on the central tenets of Parsons’ thinking, in that it advances the idea that matching one’s job to their personality is the best way to organize labor. But it focuses much more on the person, imploring them to embrace a wider range of skills. This small shift is important: It concedes that the labor market is increasingly fragmented, and encourages flexibility and adaptability as crucial skills in the “non-linear” economy. It encourages you to plan for many careers in a labor market where disruption and job loss is the norm.

For job-seekers, Paddle offers, among other things, a 45-question assessment, after which the service delivers you curated job advertisements and career guidance. (Their service runs in parallel for employers, providing them with a channel to reach pre-screened candidates.) The test reshuffles your preferences against each other, ranking them to suss out a portrait of your values. Along the way one can detect a subtle thematic arc, a philosophy of work suggested by wordings and juxtapositions. The first question asks whether you would rather “work towards large-scale and long term change,” or “make more money to live well”; these distinctions — between personal and financial fulfillment, altruism and self-preservation — come up repeatedly. The questions get more probing, more personal, as you advance, but you can almost never shake the sense that what you are being asked to do is to quantify and identify the point at which concern for money breaks you.

At its outset, the Paddle test demands a sort of temporal selfishness from you: “Pick what option motivates you most, not what others expect from you,” it instructs. “Choose what motivates you today, not what might motivate you in the future.” The questions force you to think about the ways that work impacts you, the people in your life, and the world at large, but effectively gloss over difficult realities as a matter of course, normalizing either/ors like “would you rather have priorities outside of work or make more money to live well.”

Paddle’s personality assessment provides a decent snapshot of what motivates you as a worker — in my experience, at least, the basic assessment was accurate. But that information is not necessarily helpful in a material way. An aptitude test designed for a fundamentally flawed job market exudes a sort of insidious conservatism that claims to give you the tools to improve your material conditions, while in truth it may do little more than cheer you on inconsequentially. After completing the career assessment, which determined that I am an artistic, “model citizen” archetype, I was presented with a number of entry-level corporate jobs, none of which I had the qualifications for. By the time I was halfway down the page, Paddle’s algorithm had begun suggesting I apply for a fast food job in a suburban mall food court.

In an infamous ad earlier this year, the gig economy service Fiverr characterized the new reality of labor as: “You eat a coffee for lunch. You follow through on your follow through. Sleep deprivation is your drug of choice.” Although they were roundly criticized, the ads accurately described the realities of labor in the 21st century. “The near collapse of the world’s financial system in 2008 and 2009,” write Lovegrove and Thomas in a 2016 paper, “is a profound example of a system designed, operated, and nearly destroyed by the provision of almost unfettered authority to deep specialists.” They encourage workers to diversify their skills and be flexible and open to careers in various fields. But job seekers’ powers are limited: “Institutions across sectors have a large role to play in enabling this ecosystem of frictionless participation — in particular by valuing leaders with non-linear profiles and the six distinguishing traits appropriately.”

A test encouraging you to construct an idea of who you are and what you value might be less useful at matching you with the right gig than establishing an identity throughline

Many of their subjects are field leaders who happen to have taken the path of less specialization, but these examples are less useful for explaining why so many talented people ultimately struggle at the hands of a market that still values specialization in a very real way. I know few unemployed people whose main problem is that they are too qualified in a specific field, and far more who struggle to find entry-level jobs that they are remotely qualified for. Arguing that skill diversity and breadth is good for employees in a vacuum tends to ignore that the job market will happily exploit them. A test that encourages you to construct an idea of who you are and what you value might, in effect, be less useful at matching you with the right gig than establishing an identity throughline that could string you through the choppy career path ahead: Discover who you are at a soul level, and a lifetime of gigging coheres into your story. This arguably preserves the idea of vocational guidance, but it doesn’t do much to nab you the job you want, much less a job. Aptitude tests, like any form of self-help, may invigorate job seekers; but when the problem lies with employers, they can do little else but proffer ideals.

The underlying problem here is not with Paddle specifically. Perhaps it lies with a startup economy that believes, with stubborn hubris, that the nonlinear gig economy is fine so long as there are algorithms to help us navigate it — that material problems can be solved without fundamentally changing material conditions. This is something working people are told regularly. Drive for Uber in your spare time for extra cash. Rent your room out on Airbnb when you aren’t there. (As one New Yorker article found, young people in New York were renting out their entire condos full-time, living on couches and in rooming houses.) Work on your own schedule, matching your supply with demand. A labor market crisis is rebranded as something desirable; what isn’t apparent is that these hip, modern styles of work are only made possible by the fact that companies are permitted to sail through loopholes left in laws that are at least nominally meant to protect the working class. Paddle didn’t create this mess, of course; but it doesn’t provide the tools to resist it. Instead, it takes the economy envisioned by startup culture, and validates it by teaching you how to navigate.

My mother is fond of reminding me that I wanted to be a marine biologist when I grew up. This childhood ambition was rooted in my love for dolphins, particularly a stuffed one named Squirt. The ambition disappeared fairly early in my teenage years, when reading books took over as my main marketable skill, but she clings to it still. The occupations you imagine for yourself or your children are important — what do you want to be when you grow up? — and the career aptitude test has always been about shaping this vision. Many, if not most of us were raised to think of occupation as an extension of our selves; it’s a cliché that millennials think of work differently than previous generations did, valuing happiness and fulfillment over pure financial motivations. The thought of doing a job that steeps you in slow, blunting misery seems less popular now than ever, and many of us were told that what we wanted to do for work was actually a matter of who we wanted to be. The aptitude test is a way of shaping that vision, but it’s unclear whether this exercise does much to help workers, especially new workers and those who became unemployed after the floor fell out of the job market.

The idea that a career should follow from, and validate, one’s personality, is agreeable, but it is of course a bourgeois conception of work: Never having to sacrifice any part of yourself for a job, never having to look down the road and determine what changes you might need to make to put food on the table, is something that extends from material security. Denying who you might have to be in favor of who you are is a form of navel-gazing career planning that is rarely afforded to the working class. At a time when working people need meaningful ways to find and keep jobs, helping job seekers find meaning in a labor market that saps them of agency is at best only marginally helpful. At worst, it tries to dress up low-value employment as a choice.

Kieran Delamont is a reporter for Metro News in Ottawa, and has written about cities, technology, and culture for the Guardian, Vice News, CityLab, and Spacing, among others. He runs, watches too much TV, and eats ramen far too frequently.