Careers are not dead – we’re just traveling different roads

On evolutions in individual career development and their consequences for organisational career management

Dirk Buyens

By Dirk Buyens

Professor of Human Resources Management

Sarah Quataert

By Sarah Quataert

Senior Researcher, Human Resource Management

16 March 2020

Changing economies, ways of working and organisational designs are challenging the concept of careers as it has existed for many years. Obviously, in today’s world of work, careers are no longer a sequence of hierarchically ordered jobs, performed within one and the same company. But careers are far from dead. On the contrary, for many people careers are taking a very central role in their lives, providing them with a strong social identity and substantially influencing their overall happiness. Instead of radically abandoning career-thinking, individuals are instead changing their perceptions on how to conceptualise their professional lives, considering careers as continually evolving gatherings of work-related experiences for which every employee carries individual responsibility. In this white paper from the Centre for Excellence in Strategic Talent Management, we distinguish five evolutions in individual career development, all impacting the practice of career management.

1/ From loyalty to the company to loyalty to one’s career

Driven by the common belief that individuals are responsible for creating their own subjective career success, being loyal to a company has lost popularity in favour of a very different kind of loyalty: being loyal to oneself and one’s career. The former desire for job security has been replaced by new career values, like being able to continuously develop oneself. Consequently, changing employers because of career dissatisfaction is not perceived as a lack of loyalty but rather as an act of self-management that leads to new learning opportunities.

Advice for career management:

  • Frame career messages towards customised reasons why certain career steps might be beneficial for an employee’s career path;
  • Engage in continuous dialogue with each employee individually to gain understanding of the current and potential talent pipeline and engage in personalised career management;
  • Install development I-deals: personal agreements between an individual and a company about his/her developmental plan or career path.

2/ From organisational climbing to boundaryless zig-zagging

Flat organisational structures and agile work models are clearly eroding the idea of well-defined and vertical career paths. However, we see that the need for advancement in terms of career progression remains an important driver for employees. This means that alternative ways of growth must be in place in order to keep workers satisfied with their career paths.

Advice for career management:

  • Implement a zig-zag structure based on three ladders: a managerial ladder, an expert ladder and a project ladder. Ensure that career tracks can go in any direction and reward each ladder equally;
  • Ensure that career models contain opportunities for temporary mobility via short project-based assignments, job rotation, reversible career steps and, preferably, some options to go abroad;
  • Organise work in terms of roles, projects and tasks to make it easier for employees to zig-zag their way through different departments, functional domains and layers of the organisation.

3/ From salaried employees to contingent workers

In the last decade, we saw tremendous growth in companies’ use of more flexible employment types – like temporary work, part-time work, freelancing and gig employment – to augment their workforce. Many former employees found their way to these alternative employment types, attracted by increased levels of autonomy, flexibility or the ability to do work that really builds on acquired knowledge and skills.

Advice for career management:

  • Include alternative steps in career tracks, allowing – or even stimulating – employees to reduce contractual hours to pursue a second career path elsewhere; 
  • Engage in full talent portfolio management, managing the broad career marketplace that also covers online marketplaces, contractors, gig workers, temporary workers and other non-traditional workers; 
  • Manage expectations adroitly to avoid role ambiguity, negative feelings or distrust.

4/ From linear careers to transitional careers

The idea of intertwining professional activity with periods of rest is appealing to many people, who consider career breaks or sabbaticals as just another section of one’s career portfolio. Thinking of careers in terms of a sequence of transitory states between paid work and non-labour-market activities is also referred to as ‘transitional career thinking’.

Advice for career management:

  • Provide a clear career break policy that uses legal systems optimally and is supplemented with transparent rules for relying on unpaid leave to take some time off; 
  • Prepare every leave by directly involving team members in making decisions on who will temporarily take over which responsibilities; 
  • Allow employees to build upon and share newly acquired skills after their return.

5/ From working for money to working for purpose

The former psychological contract between employer and employee, which merely entailed the exchange of labour and money, expired a long time ago. In their search for meaning in life (and work), employees now expect purposeful careers, in return for which they will give full dedication, going the extra mile to contribute to the organisation’s objectives.

Advice for career management:

  • Make what your company stands for very explicit; 
  • Offer individual career counselling to stimulate individual reflection on one’s personal purpose and use the insights gained to align people and work; 
  • Create opportunities for job crafting to help employees create their own purpose.

It is clear that, as a result of these developments, one can no longer speak of ‘the career’ as it has become an umbrella term that refers to a broad spectrum of possible pathways. This brings new opportunities for Talent Management, managing a more comprehensive portfolio of talent sources, but it also entails extra complexities. And there are still many challenges ahead of us, because it’s clear that careers are dynamic constructs that will keep evolving, led by economic and societal influences. Organisations will have to demonstrate the change readiness needed to adapt current career policies to capture ongoing change and keep all segments of the workforce satisfied and engaged.

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Sarah Quataert

Sarah Quataert

Senior Researcher