Are career paths still relevant?

Was there ever really a time when career paths were clear and stable? There was an assumption that you’d choose one in your early 20s, shortly after your graduation (if you were lucky). You would follow a pre-determined series of milestones along a well-worn route, progressing through different levels of seniority. By the end of your career, you may well be saying goodbye in the same organisation in which you started. 

According to that old-fashioned approach, your career path was something you chose, like selecting a holiday from a stack of brochures. Maybe things were once this straightforward; maybe it’s all a cultural myth. Nonetheless, this type of model hasn’t been applicable for the last couple of decades, and the way careers are shaped now, it’s likely to move even further away from it in the future.

In today’s work environment, and in the foreseeable future, your career path is something you have to forge. There are many reasons behind this change. Let’s start with the digital tools that have become prevalent in the corporate world – word processing, spreadsheets, presentation software and general information management. A new base business literacy has emerged: everyone is expected to master these tools. It’s no longer enough to be able to work with and on multiple platforms: these tools constantly develop and change and employees are expected to adapt quickly to the new software.

The pace of technological change is compounded by the financial volatility we’ve seen over the last two decades. The cycles of boom and bust are becoming shorter and whole industries are experiencing disruption to their business models. Many of us will encounter instances of working for a business that goes under. And even if your company survives, redundancies are common: many will know the feeling of being made redundant by a changing business, despite strong personal performance.

When the time comes to do more with fewer people, you need a broad skillset to stand out from the crowd. This is especially true when you’re in relatively junior positions. Be self-motivated and quick to adapt. Above all, broaden the type of business you can work for, as it’s becoming harder to gain the initial experience required for entry level positions. Luckily, many disciplines increasingly share similar skills and tasks across sectors – marketing, project management, service design, HR related roles and office management, to name but a few.

What happens to specialisation in this type of environment? Specialisation is still important and exists in many areas of business, whether it’s knowing a specific development platform inside out or understanding the detailed dynamic of a vertical industry sector. However, there are two important caveats. Firstly, specialisation is more important later in our careers because of the need to demonstrate a broad skillset and go after a wider variety of businesses at the beginning of a career. Furthermore, you should always keep specialisation in check, as too much focus can become a hindrance if the market changes. It’s hard to predict not only whether the company you work for will survive, but also, due to the proliferation of category-wide disruption, whether your entire sub-category will survive.

Throughout your career, the initial sector you enter may grow or decline multiple times, and overall its nature is sure to change. If you’re too specialised, it may prevent you from adjusting to those changes or make moving horizontally between sub-categories within your sector difficult. Getting stuck in a declining area of the business world can be hazardous to your career and the creeping ageism that is still prevalent isn’t going to make it easier when your years of experience suddenly backfire.

With the loss of stability, transferable skills are incredibly important. You should look to develop these early on in your career and look for as many opportunities as possible, and take responsibility for different tasks. This isn’t only a better way of navigating a volatile job market, it’s also an opportunity to try different things and look for the optimal combination between your talents, the nature of your career and your potential earning power. 

For example, if your greatest passion is writing, you may have once turned to journalism, technical writing or copywriting. Now, with content marketing being so prevalent and vast aspects of business moving to digital environments where copy is key, you can find in-house writing roles in many areas of business that didn’t always have dedicated writers. So, before you specialise, you get the chance to discover the one that you find most engaging or rewarding.

People often complain that millennials are less loyal to their employers and that the only way to keep them is to provide diverse opportunities for personal growth. However, it’s easy to see that what they are actually doing is reacting to the disappearing stability in the job marketplace. Older generations would do themselves a favour to wake up to the same reality.

The good news is that as your career path becomes something you shape yourself, it becomes more about the journey you make and the things you learn along the way. Yes, it’s more challenging. But it could potentially help you lead a more fulfilling and satisfying career. 

This blog post was first published on Virgin.com