It’s Time to Rethink Traditional Career Trajectories
The past few years have ushered in a tsunami of workforce, workplace, and workload changes going far beyond remote and hybrid work. Nearly every aspect of work is shifting in some way. Across generations, talent is questioning how, where, with whom, and even why to pursue a particular vocation or create a specific professional identity. Organizations are on both the giving and receiving ends of these shifts. On the one hand, companies are subject to these forces and under pressure from multiple (and often competing) stakeholders to respond responsibly. On the other hand, companies have an unprecedented opportunity to proactively craft new norms, structures, and policies that could positively shape work for decades to come.
The rapid ascent and power of generative AI has amplified these concerns. No job feels safe, no career path is certain, and previously “secure” professions may be under threat. Against this backdrop, how can we harness a Flux Mindset today in order to better prepare for the future?
Over the past century, the word crisis has often been associated with midlife — the proverbial “midlife crisis” when one’s identity, self-confidence, and mortality often face inner turmoil. Did you know, however, that the word “midlife” didn’t even exist until 1904? (Prior to that time, if you made it to your 50s, you were considered lucky and wise — and old!) A midlife crisis is a recent phenomenon, entirely human-created, and unhelpful for today’s society. Thanks to the work of people like Chip Conley, founder of the Modern Elder Academy, we are gradually beginning to reframe the midlife crisis — and any life transition — as a period of transformation and rebirth. Crisis is rather chrysalis, and the best is still to come.
Applying this lens to our careers can yield insights and new opportunities, especially when the world seems upside-down. It begins with a few simple questions designed to boost your self-awareness:.
- What is your attitude about, or default reaction to, changes you can’t control? For example, does uncertainty tend to pique your curiosity or make you run for the hills?
- What is your attitude about unexpected career changes? If you were to lose your job tomorrow, would you see that as a tragedy that cuts at the heart of your identity (career identity crisis) or the opening you’ve been waiting for (career identity chrysalis)? What if it was your closest colleague? We often criticize ourselves for the very same thing we celebrate in others that we care about. Recognizing this can help you recalibrate your perspective.
- Under what circumstances might your answers to these questions differ?
The ability to see unexpected and unwanted change from a place of hope rather than fear, and as an opportunity to learn and grow rather than to resist or deny, is what I call a Flux Mindset. Think of it as your mental muscle for change. You can’t control getting let go from a job any more than you can avoid entering midlife. Of course, there are many things you can do to increase the likelihood of keeping a job or advancing to a new role. But insofar as someone else gave you that job, even if you enjoy and excel at it, there remains an inevitable risk that it could be taken away.
Organizationally, since the First Industrial Revolution began roughly 250 years ago, careers have been shaped as ladders to climb or paths to pursue. Employers design the arrangement and hire people onto different rungs. In each case, there is only one direction of success: Up. Today, we are in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and a lot has changed in the past two centuries. There are many paths to success and few of them are linear. In fact, the linear model doesn’t offer much in terms of adaptation or flexibility. Both talent and HR feel these constraints. The ladder isn’t necessarily obsolete, however it is only one small piece of a much larger career development pie.
We are stuck in the language of ladders, and we have a choice — and opportunity — to craft vocabulary that is better suited to today’s reality. Rather than climbing a ladder, the career of the future is a portfolio to curate. For individuals, career portfolios are designed to adapt, evolve, and uniquely represent you. For organizations, career portfolios represent the future of HR. A portfolio approach embraces career transitions as chrysalis, not crisis. It is fit for a world in flux.
Language matters. When we use outdated terms, we remain stuck in outdated systems. When we describe careers as ladders, this metaphor reflects neither what talent sees nor what the future of work offers, and we find ourselves stuck – and frustrated — at an impasse. Career portfolios open up a new kind of conversation that can be had by employers and employees, talent and companies alike. The key is to go beyond linearity. Other metaphors include career lattices, jungle gyms, and bento boxes. The point is: The future of work is not linear. It’s multi-dimensional and ever-changing. Career resilience is as important, if not more important, than career development. Portfolios grow and evolve, while ladders wobble and fall. Which would you prefer? And which reflects a more sustainable, agile HR strategy?
In a future of work rife with uncertainty, we must update our mindsets, expectations, and terminology. Career portfolios and career chrysalises are not silver bullets, but they are essential factors that help shape a future of work in more accessible, equitable, flux-friendly ways.
April Rinne is a change navigator, speaker, investor, and adventurer whose work and travels in more than 100 countries have given her a front-row seat to a world in flux. She is ranked one of the 50 Leading Female Futurists in the world by Forbes and is aHarvard Law School graduate, a Young Global Leader at the World Economic Forum, a member of theSilicon Guild and Thinkers50 Radar, a Fulbright Scholar, and the author of the international bestseller Flux: 8Superpowers for Thriving in Constant Change.