My childhood trunk, looking worse for wear, 2020.
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Career Planning in the 1980s

My childhood trunk, looking worse for wear, 2020.
My childhood trunk, looking worse for wear, 2020.

Welcome to my childhood trunk. Inside of this ragged trunk, I stored papers, letters, and other mementos gathered from middle school through college.

The trunk when new was covered by white wicker and was given to me by my Grandma Florence. As you can see from the photo, most of the wicker on the lower portion of the trunk is gone, revealing particle board. Thank our various cats for that. They enjoyed scratching the corners, wicker making a fun scratching surface.

Recently, I was inspired to strip the rest of the wicker off in order to decoupage something better looking on the trunk. That necessitated emptying the trunk. That, of course, meant sifting through the detritus of my youth to revisit the past … a personal excavation of my history.

It isn’t until you look back 30 or so years that you get the sense of how much time has passed and how much has changed.

I want to share an item I found that highlights my age.

CPP Career Guidebook from ACT, 1984.
CPP Career Guidebook from ACT, 1984.

It’s a career planning guidebook from ACT from 1984. If you’re Gen X, perhaps you remember this or something similar. The accompanying test along with the guidebook and the test results report were meant to help high school students choose a career.

Careers were grouped into job clusters and families on the Career Planning Report. Job clusters included Business Contact, Business Operations, Technical, Science, Arts, and Social Service. Job families under the Arts included Applied Arts (Visual), Creative/Performing Arts, and Applied Arts (Written and Spoken).

What is super interesting from a historical perspective is that the only computer-related careers listed on the report are “computer tape librarians” and “computer console, printer, etc. operators.” Nothing about coding or website design or social media managers or IT security or sysadmins. If you flip open the guidebook to the pages on Job Family Charts, you will find a few computer-related jobs listed, but the fact that only a couple made it onto the report shows how little impact computers had at the time.

Here’s my 4-page Career Planning Report.

Mary's Career Planning Report, page 1, 1984.
Mary’s Career Planning Report, page 1, 1984.


Mary's Career Planning Report, page 2, 1984.
Mary’s Career Planning Report, page 2, 1984.


Mary's Career Planning Report, page 3, 1984.
Mary’s Career Planning Report, page 3, 1984.


Mary's Career Planning Report, page 4, 1984.
Mary’s Career Planning Report, page 4, 1984.

I’ve blacked out some of the personal identification information.

Through my test results and self-reporting my career choices, interests, experiences, and abilities, my favored job cluster was the Arts, followed by Science. The trial job choices I reported were “Creative/Performing Arts” and “Librarian,” though I wasn’t sure about them. (Page 1, upper left corner)

Seeing as how I became a writer, artist, and historian who works in a local history museum, I guess I was more sure of these job choices than I assumed at the time.

Funny (or tragic) thing, though, museum work isn’t represented on either the report or the larger career list within the guidebook. Like, at all.

But, hey, if you wanted to be a silversmith, piano/organ tuner, airhammer operator, or bowling-pin-machine mechanic, those specialty jobs made the list. Historian appears under the job family Social Sciences, but nothing about museums. Did museums not exist in the 1980s?

As the museum I work at opened in 1975, obviously my question is meant to be facetious. So, why didn’t this entire category of jobs, with its archivists, curators, exhibit builders, tour guides, & etc., warrant a mention in a 1980s-era career guidebook?

The closest I or any other like-minded student could get was librarian. The museum option wasn’t presented to us for consideration.

This makes me wonder what today’s career guidance materials are offering students for consideration in their future careers. Hopefully, they are indicating that job turnover and full-on career turnover are much more likely than in the past.

I came of age at a time when lifetime careers at one employer were coming to an end, often cruelly, with people being laid off from such jobs just shy of being able to draw retirement. This left Gen Xers cynical about employers. If employers felt no loyalty to employees, then employees certainly didn’t need to kill themselves being loyal to any given company. We developed career adaptability and a sense of entrepreneurial spirit as a generation in response to this and to the economic recession we graduated into. If you want to know where 401ks and other personal retirement accounts came from, just look to this era, when Ronald Reagan was president and there was an increasing shift to personal responsibility in employees taking care of their own retirements … not because they wanted to, mind you. It’s because companies didn’t want to handle to costs of pensions anymore.

Well, that got me sidetracked, didn’t it?

That’s what happens when you dig mementos out of an old trunk and examine them in light of the many years that have passed. You get an inkling of where your mementos and your life’s trajectory fit within the grand scheme of larger events.

Did you ever take one of these career assessments in high school or college? How does it compare to this one from the 1980s? Did your career end up following the trajectory you thought it would take?

In honor of Daylight Saving Time, here’s an article from NPR about how people don’t like switching their clocks back and forth.

2 thoughts on “Career Planning in the 1980s”

  1. Yep, remember these! Also remember feeling pressure to pick a career when I really had no idea, at the same time designing nuclear bomb shelters inside the cover of my school books for the inevitable nuclear winter which would follow the destruction.
    Do you remember announcements that “60% of the jobs we will eventually do don’t exist yet” (but what were those jobs? Don’t think anyone knew.)
    Btw, Clothing Patternmaker is never featured on these job lists either; one always has to tick Clothing Industry Worker.

    1. Oh, absolutely, the pressure to pick a career when you had no working experience was strong. All you could do was guess about a particular career based on what you knew of it from the media or maybe from a job shadowing experience.

      The Cold War with its promise of nuclear winter was formative for us, too. I never designed a bomb shelter, but we did have drills where we hid under our desks in case of a nuclear blast. Did you ever see “The Day After”? It was really the talk of television for some time.

      I definitely remember the announcements about jobs that didn’t exist yet. Funny that they would pressure us to pick something now when perhaps what we were meant to do hadn’t been invented yet.

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