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Is it Time to Kill off ‘Career’?

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.

The Problem:

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 As a result, they continue to perpetuate deeply entrenched systems that drive out-of-date expectations.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’?

Image: © Npologuy | Dreamstime.com – Tombstone 2 Photo and Liz Price

6 comments on “Is it Time to Kill off ‘Career’?

  1. Dan L. Ward on

    Nicely stated. Too many people are trying to map their “career” using old maps/designs that reflect job paths and org structures that have long since passed. Even the popular “lattice” terminology reflects a fixed environment that really doesn’t exist.

    I encourage those I coach to practice situational awareness. Notice changing conditions and shift your strategies as conditions change. Like hockey great Wayne Gretsky said, “Skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it was.”

    • Julie Giulioni on

      I couldn’t agree more, Dan. And I love your expression ‘situational awareness.’ In our book, Bev Kaye and I talk about cultivating foresight… look outward and forward to anticipate the changes that are on the horizon and position one’s self where the puck will be. Thanks so much for sharing your perspective here!

  2. Ken Milloy on

    What a great article Julie – got my Friday morning off to a nice start!

    I certainly agree with your idea that the notion of career path is to a large degree gone, at least in terms of how it has been perceived or understood.

    As the traditional structures are replaced or overlaid with wirearchies (a far less fixed environ than lattice) the idea of career moves even further away from any form of relevancy.

    If Merrian and others dropped the word from the dictionary, how current leaders reframed things would be a most interesting spectator sport. Dan, I do like your expression “situational awareness”, just not sure it captures all that is required – will have to give that some additional reflection over the weekend.

    Great stuff – thanks all! Ken

    • Julie Giulioni on

      Thanks, Ken, for joining the conversation. And I LOVE your expression ‘wirearchies’… what an apt term and a great description of the new organizational era we’re finding ourselves in. Looking forward to more of your insights!

  3. Jacqueline on

    Hello Julie:

    Thank you for the work that you do. I must have missed this post in March; it touch’s a nerve. Yes, the prefix “career” is somewhat of an anachronism. I was recently head of a department where I was instructed by the VP to create Individual Development Plans(IDP’s)- the company’s version of a “career path”, for new members of the team. I was new myself. With the department’s culture (train yourself/no onboarding – sink or swim approach; chaos and daily crisis management were norms) and no formalized talent management infrastructure to execute the moves outlined in the IDP, the discussions represented empty promises, resulting in early disengagement, disillusioned employees and eventual attrition. Realizing the org culture, (was it Drucker who said that culture would eat strategy?),I recommended an alternate approach to the VP: I proposed that it was too early to create IDP’s – allow the associates to learn their portfolios and create IDP’s at the 1-year mark, if they decide to stay. (This department has the highest turnover in the organization). They left; frustrated that promises of “career advancement” which were interpreted as guaranteed movement (lateral and vertical)had not materialized. If a move did occur, it was because a vacancy became available and the employee took the opportunity as a way out. There was little thought for matching employee interests with the type of role; this resulted in square pegs and round holes.

    Had our discussions been about growth, development of competencies and acquisition of experience during year 1, supported by a formalized talent management infrastructure, the outcome may have been different. I soon found out that there was little interest in my views about how things could be done differently; I was expected to go along with this hollow practice of sitting down to have these ‘career’ discussions and preparing the subsequent IDP documents, knowing that the ‘career path’ would not materialize.

    Ultimately, I was on the receiving end of the employees’ frustrations, as they concluded that somehow, I was responsible for the impediments to their advancement. The moves were dependent on decisions at the VP and SVP levels, but to divulge this would be inappropriate on my part and viewed as heresy by the employees who had bought into the IDP charade. A rock and a hard place. Some later realized the culture of “smoke and mirrors” and left the organization.


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