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What Does a Career Look like in Today’s World?


You remember the Hans Christian Andersen tale about the vain emperor who is duped into wearing “specially woven” clothes that are actually nonexistent?

While he parades around, his subjects remain silent, not daring to address the situation for fear of seeming stupid or less sophisticated than others — until a child says what’s on everyone else’s mind: “The emperor has no clothes!”

Well, that’s the experience of many employees today, working for organizations that talk a good game about career development and progression but consistently fail to deliver. Which makes me wonder, is it time for the subjects of today’s corporate empires to step forward and bravely declare that the emperor has no clothes and that many organizations no longer offer careers?

Is it possible that the whole notion of “careers” as we used to know them is dead?

One definition of “career” is “an occupation undertaken for a significant period of a person’s life and with opportunities for progress.” Most would argue that tenure and progress are increasingly absent from the experience of many employees. And it makes sense.

Today’s business landscape is wildly different than that of the past. Organizations are flatter. Middle levels of management have been pruned. Baby boomers are working longer and occupying more senior roles. A huge portion of the workforce considers itself “contingent” in the gig economy. Career paths are becoming fluid in an effort to adjust to fast-changing conditions more agilely. Movement can be expensive. And artificial intelligence puts the future of many roles in question. All of this means that the old pictures and expectations of career development and progression — that predictable climb up the corporate ladder — is no longer valid.

Organizations that transparently lean into this reality may find themselves at an advantage over those who continue to parade around, touting the promise of the traditional career and its development. And yet, what’s the alternative value proposition, particularly in a competitive talent market?

In environments where developing careers is no longer as readily accessible or possible, the key is to determine what else can be developed instead. What matters most to employees? What will serve them today and into the future?

Help people develop such things as:

  • Capabilities. Offer the opportunity to gain new skills, competencies, knowledge and the ability to contribute at greater levels.
  • Confidence. Create an environment rich in feedback, appreciation and affirmations – one that helps people deepen their sense of self-assurance and self-esteem.
  • Relationships. Given today’s loneliness epidemic, cultivating connections among team members enriches life at work and beyond. And the resulting network support employees’ current performance and future possibilities.
  • Visibility. Identify opportunities to spotlight strengths, allow others to garner attention and let them shine.
  • Agility. Help employees to develop resilience and “future proof” themselves by generating and pursuing a range of developmental options.
  • Variety. You can elevate interest and engagement at work by identifying new and appetizing challenges that others can’t wait to sink their teeth into.
  • Joy. Find ways to enhance the level of satisfaction and happiness within each employee’s current role.

It’s time to stop gaslighting employees with the promise of careers where they may not exist. It’s not fair, and it’s not necessary. Especially when leaders have so many powerful and meaningful alternatives that they can develop and leverage.

Originally published on SmartBrief.


  1. Julie

    I really appreciate your post. I find that the idea of a career is disappearing. I think patience and understanding the power of longevity is becoming a lost value. I have been with my current company for 15 years. I have worked my way up through the years. I am in the gaming industry. When I graduated college, I never thought I would be spending 15+ years in this industry. However, my desire to keep with something has allowed me to thrive. I am glad I stuck with it. When I look at new employees, they want quick results. Whether it is pay, rewards, recognition, or more, they seem to forget a career is an investment. The more you put in, the more you get out. Do you believe people are constantly chasing the “greener grass” instead of working on what they have? I see people chase higher salaries at the expense of starting over, even when they are performing well or have growth options. I try to find ways to work people up in our organization. We are growing which in turn creates opportunity. It may not be at a speed some want, but it is there. How do you deal with people who say they want more growth, but may not be ready for it? I like your list of development options. I will be sure to use these when the chance arises. I really appreciate you bringing up this idea for us to think about as leaders.

    • Kevin, you bring up some really important points. In my own career, I know that commitment and perseverance have definitely paid off. But in today’s more fluid employment landscape, job-hopping/chasing that next opportunity is not just acceptable – it’s sometimes expected. Here’s the crux of the issue from my perspective (and the focus of my next books that’s just 2 chapters from complete)… we’ve been defining careers and growth too narrowly. For decades the career development default setting has been on climbing the corporate ladder. And if that’s the expectation and measure of success, no wonder so many employees are disillusioned and jumping ship. As leaders, the task is to help people think more broadly about what growth is.. and what, beyond titles and comp, can be grown in a given role. Maybe they can develop new skills. Or greater confidence. Or the ability to contribute at higher levels. Or grow their networks strategically. There are so many ways to help employee mine their current roles for the green pastures of growth and satisfaction… so that the other side of the road doesn’t look so attractive. Stay tuned.. I can’t wait to share more about this (as well as the research I conducted that found employees are a lot less interested in promotions than we think!) in the months to come. Thanks so much for your comments, Kevin. It sounds like your employees are very fortunate to have your support and leadership.

  2. This is a nice article; I am looking forward to reading more post like this.

  3. Julie,
    Without a career track, are companies truly looking to develop and promote employees? Developing these traits within individuals may not pay back. As someone without a marquee degree, I could not land a position that offered a career track. I developed my career by having the career development traits within. I have worked for blue chip as well as start ups and learned to not only recognize, but develop the opportunities on my own. I have developed my own robust toolkit that can be applied across multiple industries. Companies are not interested in developing and retaining employees. They are interested in employees that can do this for themselves. As always Julie, you spark insightful thought and motivate others. Thank you for this frank point of view.

    • Thanks so much, Lily. And bravo for taking control of your development and making it happen. I’ve said for a long time that no one cares about our careers as much as we do (and perhaps our mothers!) Yet too many employees aren’t prepared to take a key role in the process… and disappointment frequently follows. At the same time, leaders really do need to develop the skills to support the efforts of those who report to them. In the meantime, keep advocating for yourself and let me know if I can help!


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