Three ways modern life is reshaping the arc of our careers

Not all career ladders need to be strictly vertical.
Not all career ladders need to be strictly vertical.
Image: AP Photo/Laura Rauch
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Climb the ladder. Rise through the ranks. Work your way up. The language of career progression strongly suggests it moves in only one direction, continually carrying you to a preordained destination. But as workplace models change and philosophies about work evolve, the terminology we use for describing success is quickly losing relevance.

If you seek a professional path that is at least as well-rounded as it is vertical, that leads you to a finish line far from the corner office, or that works with, not against, the other trajectories of your life, you’re in increasingly good company. Let’s look at a few of the major factors reshaping the modern career arc.

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We are living—and working—longer

The traditional retirement age of 65 can sound like a drag, and not just to those who are saving like mad to clock out much earlier. Some of us—and increasingly more of us—are working well past the age of 70.

Though certainly some workers soldier on strictly for financial reasons, others no doubt are aware of the links between staying productive and staying healthy, while others may simply reject the notion of having a set expiration date on their professional contributions.

With life expectancies having risen in every region of the world over the last 20 years, the prospect of a lengthening career arc is a global one. It raises questions not only about the ways in which employers can adjust their policies and benefits to accommodate the needs of older workers, but about the ways in which jobs, and careers, get designed.

Further reading from Quartz at Work:

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We’re getting fed up with taking everything on at once

In many professions, the most crucial moments come in your 30s and 40s: Will you make partner? Will you relocate for a big opportunity? Will you be put on the short list of talent groomed to someday take over as CEO?

For many people, the intense acceleration at work comes just as their family lives are ramping up. This traditionally wasn’t much of a problem for rising workplace talent. But once women joined the labor force in large numbers, the unfortunate timing of career pressures and biological clocks became apparent. And now, with parenthood becoming a more involved activity for mothers and fathers alike, the crush of mid-life responsibilities at work and home is widely felt.

The trick is finding a way to space out the pressures. In theory, the prospect of longer careers (see section above) should help relieve the pressure to manage everything intensely all at once. As Corinne Purtill, citing US statistics, has noted in Quartz at Work:

A woman who is 40 years old today can expect to live another 45 years, on average, while 5% will live to see their 100th birthday. The average 40-year-old man will live another 42. For many people, most of those years will be healthy enough to continue work that doesn’t involve intense physical labor. So why are we still packing all of our career and family obligations into a few frantic decades?

Purtill spoke with Stanford psychologist Laura Carstensen, who advocates for a complete remapping of career paths:

Education and apprenticeships could stretch longer, [Carstensen] says, through the years when many people are starting their families and have young children at home. Full-time ideally would begin around the age of 40, rather than in our early 20s. Careers would be longer, with a gradual transition to part-time work in the later years before full retirement around age 80.

It’s a very different road map from the one we’re currently on. It comes with trade-offs: more years living the lean life of a student or trainee, occasionally having to bow out of plans with the grandkids to finish work.

Then again, as Purtill concludes, the existing pathways already exact tolls of their own.

Further reading on Quartz at Work:

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We’re finding alternative routes to success

Do you remember that famous Steve Jobs commencement speech at Stanford, where he said, “[Y]ou can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future”?

He was right when he said it in 2005, and he would have been even more right today.

Just think of all the professional pathways that have been developed or smoothed out for us in the past two decades.

Lattices: When I first heard the idea of thinking about career progression as a lattice instead of a ladder, I was rather taken with the notion. I think initially this was because it helped me justify some of the seemingly odd or out-of-sequence choices I had made in my own career—taking jobs with less money or lesser titles or at less prestigious places, either to accommodate my personal life or to scratch a professional itch. The thing is, I wouldn’t trade any of those experiences, and not only because they allowed me to support my husband’s career, or to have more hours with my daughter in the early years, or to simply be able to say that I had finally worked for a scrappy local newspaper like I had always wanted to. Just as Jobs suggested, each of those experiences helped propel me to where I am today; they enriched me professionally, in ways I could not have imagined when I took roles that looked like a step down or a sideways move and when I was focused mainly on the concessions I was making.

The corporate world has long understood the value of lattices and lateral moves for new hires and senior executives, who can use their exposure to different departments and functions to become more well-rounded leaders. That’s why a traditional management-trainee program might cycle people through six different parts of the business, and why CEO Jamie Dimon shuffles his lieutenants at JPMorgan Chase every few years. That still leaves a lot of managers in the middle who traditionally haven’t felt permission to veer from the well-worn paths of success. But a lot of those people made unconventional choices anyway, perhaps in search of better work-life balance (note the trend’s concurrence with the opening of the workplace to more women). Whatever the reason, there’s finally, thankfully, a growing recognition that the variety and breadth these lattice builders bring to the table has real value.

The siren call of startups: Silicon Valley’s appeal was never just about the technology. Our enduring fascination with people who risk it all, who set up shop in the garage and carve their own path without suits and ties and bosses and other traditional trappings of the corporate life, speaks just as much to our misgivings about the narrow definitions of success commonly found elsewhere in the business world. Entrepreneurs from Bill Hewlett and David Packard to Brian Chesky and Mark Zuckerberg have shown us there’s another way.

And today, in no small part because of the technology that is Jobs’ legacy at Apple, entrepreneurs can start companies with the kind of scale and cost-efficiencies previously reserved for more entrenched players. (Need to process payments, manage contracts, or create a mobile interface for customers? There’s an app for that, so there’s no need to build the system yourself.) When you have a smart idea and can easily find the tools you need to build a business around it, you’re that much closer to your own definition of success.

Paths for non-managers: One of the most interesting management trends we’ve been following at Quartz at Work is the development of paths for people who aren’t managers and hope to never be one. Smart companies are creating maps to show individual producers how they can sidestep the traditional hierarchy and grow in their careers, either by moving to new roles in other departments or by taking on increasing levels of responsibility over projects instead of people.

Not everyone is cut out for management, and not everyone wants to distance themselves from the kind of work that likely drew them into their field in the first place. Decent managers can appreciate this. Good managers will accommodate it. And the great managers will work side by side with valuable individual contributors and make sure they remain engaged. Being on a management track is one form of career progression, but it’s best deserved by those who are also motivated to put others on a path to success, in whatever shape that path might take.

Further reading on Quartz at Work: