Lifelong Guidance

Lifelong Guidance: a Vulnerable Political Concept with a Potential for Development

In Europe, career guidance is high on the public policy agenda. But in this policy review the view is also that guidance is a fragile concept since it is questioned whether it is inclusive enough. EU resolutions on lifelong guidance have been adopted, yet there is no pan-European plan for developing guidance services. Guidance policies are national, not trans-national.

Professor Peter Plant and Rie Thomsen, Aarhus University, Copenhagen, Denmark 

The European Union adopted EU Council resolutions on lifelong guidance in 2004 and 2008, with a view to better integrating lifelong guidance into lifelong learning strategies. Thus the links between lifelong learning and lifelong guidance are clear, as they have been since the year 2000 with the adoption of the Lisbon Strategy on lifelong learning. In the most recent resolution, EU member states were encouraged to give special attention to four key areas in lifelong guidance:

  • lifelong acquisition of career management skills;
  • facilitation of access by all citizens to guidance services;
  • quality assurance in guidance provision; and
  • coordination and cooperation among various national, regional and local stakeholders.

This puts an emphasis on active citizenship, quality assurance and cooperation. But guidance has a wider role to play in relation to social inclusion in the lifelong perspective. Plenty of structural and cultural factors militate against the vulnerable members of society: they are being peeled off the societal onion, leaving a core workforce and a more peripheral group. In response, a number of recent guidance policy documents – including the resolutions from the European Council in 2004 and 2008, and Career Guidance and Public Policy from the OECD – have considered the following: the role of guidance is to be seen in relation to (a) the individual and (b) society – a classic pair. The two are seen as complementary, rather than as opponents. The overarching concepts that join the two are human resource development and social inclusion.

The dark side of guidance policies
Guidance is seen as a dual means to span both the development of individual competences in the lifelong learning perspective, and in terms of reaching out to those in need of support and guidance. This aim is expressed in the 2004 EU Resolution on lifelong guidance, which reads:

“All European citizens should have access to guidance services at all life stages, with particular attention being paid to individuals and groups at risk.”

Clearly, these words balance the political aim of creating access to all-age, lifelong and comprehensive guidance services on the one hand, and focusing guidance services on those at risk, i.e. more narrowly focused guidance services, on the other hand. This political aim of targeting and limiting services to particular groups may have the counter-effect of stigmatising the very people who need career guidance services the most, thus placing career guidance in a social control role . This is the dark and often unnoticed side of narrowly focused guidance policies. The definition of career guidance adopted for a number of OECD/EU/World Bank reviews was this:

“Career guidance refers to services intended to assist individuals, of any age and at any point throughout their lives, to make educational, training and occupational choices and to manage their careers.”

This definition is wide and it encompasses a number of activities, often conducted in formal settings such as schools, colleges, universities or public employment services (PES), while social media, games, role plays, work experience programmes and other activity-based approaches are increasingly part of these efforts. In short, guidance is much more than a face-to-face interview. Collaboration, network-building and partnership are essential, as no single guidance practice or practitioner can fulfil all these roles, especially not in a lifelong perspective. Moreover, there is a move towards self-help approaches, including approaches designed to assist individuals to develop the skills of managing their own careers.

Comparative perspectives
Definitions of career management skills (CMS) vary across EU member states. CMS is Anglo-Saxon in origin. The French translation ‘acquisition de la capacité de s’orienter’ overlaps with the notion of ‘self-guidance’ Several countries (e.g. Slovenia and Sweden) consider aspects of CMS within broader forms of ‘career education’ and ‘career development learning’, including ‘life skills’ or ‘personal and social education’. Some restrict its meaning to narrower tasks such as ‘career planning’, ‘transition skills’ and ‘job search skills’. All this has implications for lifelong guidance approaches. Recently, the term ‘career competences’, based on experiences and concepts in the Nordic countries, has been introduced in an attempt to widen the understanding of CMS.
Despite difficulties that some countries have with the term ‘CMS’, there nevertheless seems to be a high degree of shared understanding, and most involve learning competences that support decision-learning, opportunity awareness, transition learning and self-awareness – the so-called DOTS framework.
In 2004 Watts and Sultana – respectively from the National Institute for Careers Education and Counselling, United Kingdom and the Faculty of Education, University of Malta, Malta ­ – carried out comparative studies in the career guidance field. Clearly, guidance services reflect the economic, political, social, cultural, educational and labour market contexts – as well as the professional and organisational structures – in which they operate. Nonetheless, there are some specific differences between countries, for example differences between educational systems with strong early streaming and tracking mechanisms, and those with more flexible pathways where guidance services tend to play a more important role.

A vulnerable political concept?
In Europe, career guidance is high on the public policy agenda. Still, in most European countries coherent systems of lifelong guidance that are able to cut across sectors such as youth or adult learning institutions and the national or regional public employment services are still to be developed. Yet, there is no pan-European plan for developing career guidance services. EU think tanks such as the European Lifelong Guidance Policy Network have taken the longer route to inspire national developments in a cross-country learning model, known in the EU as the ‘open method of coordination’. This leaves lifelong guidance as a rather vulnerable political concept with potential for further development.

Dr Peter Plant, Aarhus University, Denmark

Dr Peter Plant is an international expert in career guidance. Associate Professor at Aarhus University, and Professor at Lillehammer/Buskerud/Vestfold University, Norway.


Dr Rie Thomsen, Aarhus University, Denmark

Dr Rie Thomsen is Director of Research Programme Lifelong Learning at Aarhus University and member of the steering committee for the Network for Innovation in Career Guidance and Counselling in Europe (NICE).