The Traditional Career Path is Dead; Let’s Celebrate!

by Karly Rayner

The hashtag #NoWrongPath was launched to show anxious teenagers that their exam results will not etch their future indelibly in stone, but reassurance from us ancient ones carries an unexpected message — the traditional career path is dead; let’s celebrate!


A child born in the UK today has over a 50 percent chance of living to 105. This increased life span paired with a changing metric of what success actually is has eroded the once solid ‘traditional’ career path. 


The time-honoured voyage of a relatively straightforward jaunt through education, work and retirement is evolving into a more complicated zig-zag, which Lynda Gratton, Professor of Management Practice at London Business School calls a ‘multi-stage life cycle.’


Application forms which demand you account for every moment you’ve taken off work since you were 16 are stark proof that the world still hasn’t adapted to a more nonlinear approach to working, but change feels inevitable. 


While normalising a certain flexibility in our careers has the downside of offering less security and stability, there are numerous plus points for our mental health and wellbeing, especially for women who still face a ‘wall of bias’ for taking time off their careers if they choose to have children. 


The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) in America estimates that the average baby boomer (born 1946-1964) had 11 jobs over their career, whereas millennials (born 1981-1996) are on track to switch jobs at a much higher rate — holding a job for an average of 3 years. While younger people have always taken more career risks, trends and attitudes in the labour market suggest that ‘job hopping’ is no longer being seen as a negative, but a sign of the flexibility needed to thrive in today’s job market. 


In human terms, this means that stumbling at a seemingly crucial exam or changing your entire career direction is perhaps less of a daunting, potentially damaging blip. 


According to Tara Sinclair, senior fellow at the job-hunting portal Indeed:


“There has long been this maligning of millennials as being job hoppers. I think that that’s the wrong story. Job hopping is something we want to see more of.” 


I am 34 and my career has been fraught with anxiety about not following a more traditional trajectory, which perhaps comes from an outdated mental picture of how our working lives should look. I have already had 3 distinct careers — often more than one at the same time!


Anxiety about my twists and turns which — when viewed as a holistic picture all spin a harmonious, satisfying narrative thread — has dogged my self-esteem and made me feel like the employment Gods will strike me down with a lightning bolt of judgement. But to my great surprise, this judgement has never come to pass.


Instead, shockingly, my breadth of experience and taking time out to do a masters at 32 seems to actually be appreciated by my employers and the faceless people in HR sifting through CVs. 


Perhaps my own career experiences are a reflection of society's gently evolving measure of what success actually means. In a brilliant Guardian article by Linda Gratton and Andrew Scott, they write that the future of work might look like:


“A multi-stage life – with transitions and breaks in between. In one stage, the focus may be on accumulating financial assets, in another creating a better work-life balance… these multi-stage lives require a proficiency in managing transitions and reflexivity – imagining possible selves, thinking about the future, reskilling and building new and diverse networks. At its best, it offers people an opportunity to explore who they are and arrive at a way of living that is nearer to their personal values.”

In a moment of synchronicity, when I pitched this article Donna Middleton — founder of The Shirt Company — was reading ‘Thrive’ by Ariana Huffington, co-founder of the Huffington Post. This book also invited us to redefine success. In a blog post defining her ideas, Huffington writes that:


“Our current notion of success, in which we drive ourselves into the ground, if not the grave — in which working to the point of exhaustion and burnout is considered a badge of honor — was put in place by men, in a workplace culture dominated by men. But it’s a model of success that’s not working for women, and, really, it’s not working for men, either. If we’re going to redefine what success means, if we are going to include a Third Metric to success, beyond money and power, it’s going to be women who will lead the way — and men, freed of the notion that the only road to success includes taking the Heart Attack Highway to Stress City, will gratefully join both at work and at home.”


The process of bending our definition of success to something which nourishes who we are as individuals and allows us space to breathe is already underway, but the message hasn’t quite filtered through. 


Academic pressure from family, school and society on young people is self-reported as one of the biggest causes of stress and anxiety and — when almost 1 in 3 adolescents aged 13 to 18 will experience an anxiety disorder — this is a huge deal.


Not only is this a mental health crisis, but anxious students are more likely to underachieve and not live up to their potential. Tragically, this crushing pressure does not always translate to success. 


If I was not constantly being terrified that failing my GCSEs would result in a life writhing around in the gutter, I would probably have been more focused on achieving the elusive potential I was told I had. Instead, I was consumed by dread which made it hard to even eat, let alone study. This chronic fear of failure haunted me for the next decade, laying it’s icy hand on my time at a prestigious London art school and making me feel it wasn’t for me.


When asked about her career trajectory, Bettina S. San Luis — head of PR and marketing at The Shirt Company — had a similar story. After spending her school years as an overachiever, smashing her goals to go to one of the most prestigious universities in the Philippines (only 5% of applicants succeed), she was also devoured by the build up of pressure. Instead of admitting defeat, San Luis took extra classes to gain a qualification from a different university a year later than expected. This experience, along with detours through advertising and real estate led her to a fulfilling marketing career born from her passion for fashion and styling. 


Instead of being disasters, detours can be reframed as avenues of exploration and experimentation which allow us to emerge more sure of ourselves and what we want from our careers.


As a therapist, I see anxiety as a future-based issue. When young people look at the job market, there is no longer a clear future — which can cause a chronic sense of uncertainty: If you don’t know what you’re aiming for, how do you get there?  


Seemingly little things like #NoWrongPath can make a big difference to normalise taking a scenic career route and being happy and fulfilled on (and perhaps, because of) the journey. So, here’s to the death of the traditional career path; for those just starting out and those stuck along the way!

Cover image: Carla Orozco


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