Each year, Merriam-Webster and others add countless new words to the dictionary. But, are words ever deleted? If so, I might suggest ‘career’ as a possible contender.
Used in conjunction with so many other terms – like development, progression, success, etc. – in recent years, ‘career’ has contributed to untold dissatisfaction, disengagement, demotivation, and general angst in the workplace.
Over the past decade, the workplace has experienced seismic shifts:
- Leaner, meaner organizations are the norm.
- Layers of leadership have been removed.
- In many industries and segments, attrition lags behind expectations due to baby boomers working longer.
- At the same time, average tenure has dropped, with most employees working for multiple companies over the course of their work lives.
- A significant percentage of the workforce is made up of contingent workers and contractors.
- Organizational structures are constantly in flux.
Yet, despite these dramatic changes to the environment, leaders and employees alike continue to hold firmly to old visions of ‘career’ and what that ought to mean. Ask just about anyone to share the first word that comes to their mind when you say ‘career’, and I bet at least half of them will say ‘ladder.’
Losing the Ladder
The reflex-like association between ‘career’ and ‘ladder’ is at the core of what’s fueling employee dissatisfaction in many organizations. Whereas in the past, employees could expect fairly regular opportunities to develop, move up, progress, and be promoted, the world simply doesn’t work like that today.
Unfortunately too many organizations and leaders either don’t recognize this or don’t know how to respond. As a result, they continue to perpetuate deeply entrenched systems that drive out-of-date expectations.
What’s in a Word?
So, perhaps the first step is to re-think the very word ‘career’ and ask ourselves a couple of important questions.
1. Are ‘careers’ even relevant to today’s employees?
- Millennial workers are looking to build skills and capacities. They are looking to amass a portfolio of experiences. The old images of ‘career’ don’t necessarily resonate with this portion of the population.
- Contractors and contingent workers (which make up an increasingly larger percentage of the workforce) don’t typically have any visibility or access to internal career paths. Their evidence of success or progress is securing the next gig or contract.
2. And, if organizations can no longer ensure the former trappings of ‘career development’ (e.g. promotions, status, raises), what can and should they call what they offer instead?
- Increasingly, savvy leaders are realizing they must replace the old promise of promotion with the new promise of growth and development. New roles and titles might not be available, but training, stretch assignments, mentorship and greater visibility generally are.
- Perhaps it’s time to replace the term ‘career’ with these things that organizations can really offer today.
So, if Merriam and her friends deleted ‘career’ from the dictionary, leaders might be forced to find a new way to talk about the experience of one’s work-life over time. We might have to reframe the whole experience and in the process update our vocabulary in a way that reflects the reality in most organizations. This sort of honesty, clarity, and transparency could go a long way toward setting new and realistic expectations. And these expectations could be the basis for greater engagement, motivation, and job satisfaction.
What do you think? Is ‘career’ dead? What terms might serve as effective replacements for ‘career’?