When I first joined the workforce, a common method for tracking your professional success was setting career goals and then steadily working toward those goals. My superiors encouraged me and my colleagues to ask ourselves: “Where do I want to be in X-number of years?”. The question was relevant because the norm at the time was to choose a career, i.e. training and development or sales management. Then, within that specific career path, you were expected to set yourself goals to monitor and encourage your progress on that particular path. However, questions such as “where do you see yourself in five years?”, lack relevance in today’s workforce. For the generations currently entering the workplace, a more common approach will be to ask themselves: “What careers do I want to experience throughout my professional life?”. This shift in career planning is in response to the change in the workplace itself and in the evolution of careers. To fully understand this change we should take a quick look at the past to see what each generation experienced as their typical career path and how it is evolving.
The Evolving Workplace As Seen Through Generations
The Silent Generation: born between 1928 and 1945. The silent generation typically worked for a single company throughout their career, monitoring their progress through their ability to move vertically through the ranks of their company.
The Baby Boomers: born between 1946-1964. The baby boomers commonly stayed within the same industry throughout their careers however they were slightly more transient, changing employers on average three times.
Generation X: born between 1965-1980. Gen X was the first generation to experience the consequences, both positive and negative, of developing technology in the workplace. Collectively more educated than previous generations, this is the generation that started the job-hopping trend, using it as an opportunity to develop their skills and market themselves. On average, they change two employers per decade.
Millennials / Gen Y: born between 1981-1996. Millennials are the first generation to encounter the fast-changing workplace and the emergence of new industries, driven by rapid technological transformation. This generation is on track to surpass four employer changes by the age of 32.
Centennials / Gen Z: born after 1996 – Present. Centennials are the first generation to have never lived without the Internet or social networks, they are driven by products over experiences, and quality over brand loyalty. Characteristics of these group are still evolving, but the trend of this generation seems to navigate towards freelancing or entrepreneurship. One study states 72% of teenagers want to start their own business.
Two of the many changes that are directly affecting our current workforce and therefore our methods and approaches to career planning are flatter hierarchical structures within companies and the growing trend of freelancing.
As the workplace evolves, we are encountering more companies with “flatter” hierarchies meaning that the traditional method for tracking one’s progress through vertical growth will not be a possibility for everyone. Companies are also relying more on freelancers, who are beginning to encroach on the number of employees looking for traditional full-time employment. One of the Largest Independent Workforce Surveys, which was commissioned by Upwork and the Freelancers Unions has revealed the number of freelance workers in the USA has grown from 53 million in 2014 to 55 million in 2016, representing 35% of the U.S. workforce, with freelancers earning an estimated $1 trillion this past year. 63% of the 6,000+ U.S. workers that were surveyed said that they freelance by choice and that “having a diversified portfolio of clients is more secure than having one employer”. The survey results also revealed that 73% of freelancers stated that technology made it significantly easier to find work and 66% said the amount of work they obtain online has also increased immeasurably in the past year.
The emergence of the gig economy, which is defined as a labor market characterized by the prevalence of multiple, frequently over-lapping, short-term contracts and freelance work, has already made the current approaches to career planning irrelevant for a large percentage of the workforce. Freelancers may struggle with questions such as: “Where do I see myself in 5 years?” as their career progression is no longer as horizontally oriented as full-time, single-employer careers of past generations. The workers who are currently launching their careers may not even know the career opportunities that will develop down the road; what industries will emerge? Which industries will disappear? What would even constitute a career in the gig economy?
The industry and workplace transformations that are currently in process will either be received as an opportunity or a threat. Already research suggests that 7/10 graduates are unclear of their career options. However, if the evolving workplace is transforming the traditional definition of a career, the graduates still seeking the comfort of certainty by focusing on choosing one specific career, may ultimately struggle. We need to equip graduates to navigate their work life and to be confident in their work-related decisions, regardless of the career or company they are employed by. Meaning, rather than career planning being job-specific, it needs to become candidate-specific, which will allow them to not only be prepared for the careers of today but also for the careers of the future. The question then becomes: how can we help graduates and workers feel confident that they are making good decisions?
Achieving a sustainable work life will require employees to know their skills and abilities well-enough so that they may consistently navigate these nascent, overlapping, fluid, career paths. The talent pool needs to be empowered to discover their true north, i.e. focus on self-discovery so they can utilize the deeper understanding of themselves to make informed decisions and choices, leading to satisfying, fulfilling and ultimately successful careers. Fortunately, current neuroscience breakthroughs are providing us with the ability to understand our unique behaviors, work aptitudes and work environment preferences better than ever before. So, how does a deeper understanding and self- awareness of our unique preferences support career transition or reinvention?
Well, while the qualifications of today may or may not have much relevance for the work requirements of the future, a deeper self-awareness will make acquiring new skills easier and more effective. This is due to the fact that when a job role matches a person’s personal preferences with respect to behaviors, aptitudes and work environments, the desire to learn is higher and thus productivity and efficiency increases. If one knows their preferences then these can be leveraged along the reinvention curve that will occur, allowing workers to evolve alongside the workplace rather than being left behind. If we respond to the changes quickly and appropriately, workplace transformations will present themselves as opportunities and not threats, especially for those who have developed a substantial enough understanding of themselves to be able to successfully navigate, adapt and use change in their organizational culture to their advantage.
The benefits of being self-aware are evident when we begin to consider each preference individually. Let’s consider preferred work aptitudes as an example; work aptitudes are defined as the extent to which someone will enjoy undertaking specific activities and is motivated to learn and acquire skills in regards to the specific activities and tasks required by a specific job or company. We are all motivated to learn new things, but as individuals we are all unique in what drives us and what types of activities will motivate us better than others. Finding work that requires the use of the aptitudes we are naturally suited to, will make our path to success much simpler than if we are in a job that requires us to struggle with tasks we truly do not enjoy, or that requires the use of skills that we are not particularly interested in learning. There is a big difference between needing to learn and wanting to learn, and motivation varies accordingly.
If we understand our preferences, we can thus successfully and actively seek out companies, new industries, or projects that require work which matches our own preferences. This is how we can successfully and consistently transition or emphasize specific skills depending on what is needed for a particular job at any-given point.
The first step is to gain and develop your understanding of your unique behavior preferences. Using that information, you can then make choices regarding your education and career options with confidence. Don’t leave your journey to luck, use your preferences as a navigational compass on the quickly evolving work path. Let your education and career align with who you are rather than forcing yourself to fit into a role that hinders your progress.