What does “Career” really mean in the 21st Century?

I believe it is vital that we reappraise the meaning of the word Career.

Our beliefs around career become an internal benchmark that we use to judge ourselves and make comparisons with those around us.

This belief is shaped by our education, family and friends, their views, thoughts, and ideas, as well as external societal messages. One comment at school or by a prominent individual in our life can have a long-lasting impact on the decisions we take and what we feel a career should be!

I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I had followed my love of art into further and higher education rather than pursue what I believed was a proper, sensible, business orientated route.  It is an itch that still needs scratching and I know I need to make creativity part of my life again.

Whilst at school, my daughter’s career aspirations were discounted, and a teacher attempted to steer her into what she thought was a more appropriate career. 

How the definition of “Career” has changed

There are many definitions of career.

One definition relating to work in 1803 is general and unspecific,  “the course of one’s public or professional life”. 

In 1968, it was argued that ‘in contemporary industrial society only a minority of the workforce participates in careers” [1].  This narrow perspective still seems to permeate education, the workplace and society, that a career is for some and not for others.

Current top line dictionary definitions also include:

  • An occupation or profession, especially one requiring special training, followed as one’s lifework.
  • A career is the job or profession that someone does for a long period of their life.

But the world we live in today is far removed from the 1960’s and, in some ways since the Pandemic, the 2010’s, where individuals often change their specialisms during their working life.

I believe that a more recent definition by the Career Development Institute is far more relevant to today and those entering the workforce:-

“A career refers primarily to the sequence and variety of work roles, paid or unpaid, that individuals undertake throughout their lives; but it is also the construct which enables individuals to make sense of valued work opportunities and how their work roles relate to their wider life roles”.

The world of work in the 21st Century

The world of work today would be unrecognisable to previous generations.   

When I started work, the most common forms of communication were the telephone and the post, with some use of fax machines.  Typewriters rather than PCs were the norm, whereas today we nearly all carry a minicomputer in our hands in the form of a smart phone. 

Employees often stayed with one or two employers throughout their working life.  Employers were far more paternalistic, rewarded long service, and celebrated individuals who achieved long service milestones.   

From an educational perspective, in 1980 68,150 students obtained a  1st degree compared with 422,975 in 2020.  This does not include other educational pathways that now exist in further education and the change in policy whereby students stay in education until they are 18.

Today there are limited opportunities to step up in a hierarchy, the so-called career ladder.  Organisational structures are flatter and career paths are less obvious, or harder to navigate.  Paths often include horizontal and diagonal moves that have been referred to as “lattice careers”.

The pace of technological change means that certain roles are disappearing, whilst new roles and skill requirements are emerging, and this is likely to accelerate. 

In an ever-changing world, organisations are constantly adapting, transforming, divesting or merging.  Events and circumstance rather than our own choices impact our working lives.  I have witnessed the effects of the dot.com bubble bursting in the late 1990’s, the Financial Crisis of 2007-2008 and the current fall out from COVID 19.    

Many careers now include periods of self-employment, through choice or necessity.  The number in solo self-employment rose from 1 in 12 in 1975 to 1 in 7 in 2019 and has accounted for 38% of all employment since the Financial Crisis (Institute of Fiscal Studies).

There is also a need to consider the impact of increased longevity and the increase in the retirement age moving toward 70.  According to the Human Mortality Database in 2016, 50% of babies born in 2007 in the UK will live to 103.  In 2019 according to the Office of National Statistics workers aged 65 and older will be responsible for more than half of all UK employment growth over the next 10 years and almost two-thirds of employment growth by 2060.

Fewer and fewer are now living a three-stage life i.e., education, then work, followed by retirement.  Whereas…

“A multi-stage life with new milestones and turning points creates numerous sequencing possibilities, and the way these are sequenced will no longer be determined by the logic of a three-stage life.  Instead, it will be shaped by individual preferences and circumstances” (“The 100 Year Life, Living and Working in an Age of Longevity” by Lynda Gratton & Andrew Scott).

Final Thought

Don’t let a fixed view of a career limit the possibilities that lie ahead or the chance to refresh, reframe and re-energise your career so that it works for you.

Are you questioning where you are in your career? Then book a FREE CAREER CHAT today. A confidential, safe, non judgmental space where you can be totally honest and be heard.

[1] The History of the Modern Career: An Introduction John Brown, Marco H.D. van Leeuwen, and David Mitch

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