Used to be, the goal was to climb the career ladder: start in an entry-level position and travel in a single, vertical direction up the rungs to management, senior leadership, partnership, then maybe the C-suite.
Today, that mental image feels rigid, outdated even. In a newly hybrid, increasingly flexible world of work, the career landscape has changed: people with day jobs participate in the creator economy , and people outside of academia take sabbaticals as a way to reflect and recharge.
So, at a time when people can theoretically work at any hour, from anywhere, on anything, what's a more accurate way to express the idea of career progression? Abigail Sellen, deputy director of Microsoft Research in Cambridge, England, advises her own children to imagine instead a climbing wall, with many opportunities for steady footing as you pursue a successful career. “Think about what interests you now and pursue that,” she says. After all, people are on the move: the average person has 12 jobs in their lifetime, with an average tenure of three years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics . Shorter job life cycles, longer careers (because people live longer), and rapidly changing industries upended by technology mean the old mode of success—a degree that feeds into a job that you stay at for years and years—is fading. “The linear model goes out the window. It’s not about being an expert in a domain, it’s about learning how to learn, unlearn, and relearn,” Sellen says, citing an oft quoted phrase by the American businessman and futurist Alvin Toffler.
Think of it then as a career playground: Choose a starting point, somewhere that interests you, and explore. Move laterally along the monkey bars, slip down the slide, swing up to new heights, or all of the above. Indeed, a LinkedIn survey from October 2021 found that 59 percent of people in the US have had a career awakening wrought by the pandemic: 33 percent were looking for a new role, 34 percent were pursuing a side hustle or passion project, and 30 percent were taking steps to learn something new in their current position. And people also want the space to be healthier in their careers: Microsoft’s 2022 Work Trend Index reported that 53 percent of employees were more likely to prioritize health and wellbeing over work than before the pandemic.
“Young people want to work to live, not live to work,” says Rick Pollak, principal consultant at LinkedIn’s people success platform, Glint, in reference to the report.
More proof: According to an Ivanti Survey of thousands of workers in several countries, 71 percent said they would pass on a promotion to preserve the ability to work from anywhere, anytime. That is, they would protect their own happiness and choose not to climb the ladder. The peak of a career is not always at the top.
People say they would protect their own happiness and choose not to climb the ladder. The peak of a career is not always at the top.
This is great news, according to Sellen, who recognizes from decades of studying work that a good career is characterized by seizing opportunities, and that opportunities are increasingly bountiful in many parts of the world. (Job openings in the UK and the US reached historic highs in the past several months.) As employees become more empowered by these greater market opportunities, the challenge for leaders is making sure that workplace structures and reward systems keep up. In other words, don’t put your people in a box.
A big piece of that is recognizing how skills might be transferable across fields traditionally considered separate. According to one global report , 63 percent of employers said they would hire someone with transferable skills—problem-solving, teamwork, dependability, for example—and train them on the technical skills while on the job. Sometimes, even technical skills are transferable, too. Kayla Woputz is a data scientist at Microsoft with a PhD in archaeology. She found a way to bridge her interests in social sciences and humanities to computer science and mathematics. “Being a data scientist and an archaeologist, I see them as the same thing,” she says. In both roles, she excavates information to find a contextual narrative.
And Gen Z and millennials are more likely than other generations to leave a role if it’s not working for them, so business decision makers need to rethink their processes—from recruitment to career progression to continuing education—to better encourage all types of mobility, not just upward. LinkedIn’s Workplace Learning Report said employees who see good opportunities to learn and grow are 3.6 times more likely to report being happy at their company, and 2.9 times more likely to report that they expect to be at their company over the next two years.
“Organizations need to recognize and celebrate the fact that people don’t want to be pigeonholed but to have bespoke jobs.”
After all, a career playground doesn’t have to involve hopping from company to company: Shelley Broader, former CEO of Chico’s clothing stores and Walmart in Africa, Europe, the Middle East, and Canada, spent 17 years at one supermarket company early in her career. But she moved around from foothold to foothold, shifting internally from working in stores to focusing on supply chain distribution—where she wore steel-toed boots and learned to operate a forklift—to merchandising, communications, and strategy. Eventually, she became CEO. “Moving forward in an organization means moving all around, taking advantage of chances to listen, learn, and grow through a wide range of experiences. You'll see the work from multiple perspectives and bring that kind of authentic empathy that comes from having truly ‘walked the talk,’” she says.
“There’s been a lot of entrenchment by organizations, and they need to be more adaptable and resilient, and recognize and celebrate the fact that people don’t want to be pigeonholed but to have bespoke jobs,” Sellen says. They want the freedom to piece their best career together, and to feel supported and rewarded while figuring it out. “I get a lot of CVs across my desk,” she says. “The most interesting to me are the ones that show a person isn’t afraid to try something new, like the guy who went to fashion school and later got a degree in electrical engineering.”
Today, some of the most talented employees aren't climbing ladders anymore, they're defining success on their own terms. On this career playground, opportunities take many shapes and forms. So do the paths that lead us there.