The death of the career path and how you can survive and thrive without it

I remember when I started my first real banking job almost 10 years ago. One third of the office got laid off within the first month.

And this was not some fly by night operation, this was one of the largest banks in the world.

Sure, this was a unique period in time as the years immediately following the financial crisis were a time of great instability, especially for the major banks. But still, it’s a tough environment to start your career in.

Thankfully, times are not quite as tough now for everyone who is just graduating and starting their career, but something has changed and there is no going back.

What we have witnessed was not just the painful shockwave of the financial crisis, but the death of the career path as we know it.

Or so says this great read from Harvard Business Review that really struck a personal note with me and reminded me of getting started in my career back in 2009.

In seeking to understand the reason that so many people were dissatisfied with career opportunities at their company, the author came to the conclusion that it’s not the opportunities that are the problem, but the “very concept of a career”:

“We are suffering from the career myth — a delusional
belief in the outdated idea of linear career progression.”

If you’re just starting out today or out there grinding away, you have to always keep this in mind - the way we used to think about careers no longer holds true.

I witnessed this first hand in my time in banking and it was very tough at times, but there are ways to survive and thrive if you take the right approach.

The old way

Coming into the job market at the time that I did (late 2000's), everyone who you would get career advice from were looking at the world through the lens of the 1980s and 1990s.

This included university professors, parents, relatives, family friends, you name it…

The world they knew was where large corporations were pillars of industry and felt like they were never going to disappear. They invested in training their workforce and, as long as you followed along, you could count on a 20 or 30 year career with promotions all along the way.

All you had to do was work hard and follow directions and the rest would take care of itself.

Put your head down, don’t make too much noise, don’t ask too many questions, and as long as you were good at what you were doing, you would be rewarded over time.

But when I came out of university, I just couldn’t understand what was going wrong. I put my head down and focused on my studying while keeping a full-time job on the side to pay some of my tuition and ended up graduating near the top of my class.

But when I went out into the real world, the jobs weren’t there.

Everyone I was taking advice from was just as confused as I was. After a while with no big break, I got the sense that they thought I just wasn’t trying hard enough.

For sure, some of this was due to the depressed economy at the time, but we had all missed the bigger picture that things had fundamentally changed.

It was only after years of being out in the real world that I was able to figure out how the new system worked.

It was no longer enough to just do what you’re told and follow instructions well…

But what I found is that you always have to be building skills that are in demand in the marketplace and then be able to put them on display.

Times have changed… and keep changing

To think about why this is so important, let’s first look at how the old way of working did not require this and what I did wrong.

Before, when you were finishing up university, if you had good grades this was enough to show employers that you had the right skills to succeed in their organization. You proved that you could learn something when someone gives you enough time and clear instructions on you all of the steps you have to follow.

This worked well for them, because they were willing to train people and grow them inside of their organization… they would give you all of the steps, you just had to pay attention and follow directions.

But now, corporations aren’t looking 10 or 20 years into the future. They need people who can help them survive, today.

Or in the words of the HBR article:

“We no longer need to be good at predicting the future; we now have to succeed when the future is unpredictable.”

And for companies trying to succeed in this unpredictable environment it’s not enough to show that you are a quick learner and can pick up skills as you go.

You have to show that you’ve already done that.

You have to show that you’ve already done the work to pick up the skills they need, because they need you to put those skills to use right away.

So what should you be doing?

What does all of this mean for you if you are just starting out or trying to piece together something that looks like a career path?

The piece of advice that I found most helpful from the HBR article and that carried me far in my banking career was this:

“Focus on transferable skills…. These are skills that increase employability because they can be applied to a variety of roles and situations now and in the future (for example, communication, self-management, writing, public speaking). Rather than investing in one path, we tell employees, they should diversify their career capital.”

What that looks like in practice (and how I did it) is something like this:

  • Always be learning something new - but that’s not good enough on it’s own!
  • The things that you are learning have to be something that other companies will value
  • And at the same time you have to really prove that you have those skills by doing something tangible that you can point to

This means you have to focus on building skills that are valuable in the marketplace: like coding or digital marketing or managing projects or writing, etc.

The key point here is general skills that are not specific to any one company. Continually look at job descriptions for the next job you might be interested to know what skills you will need to get that job.

Try to avoid spending too much time learning internal knowledge like: proprietary software, internal systems, and customized processes.

Obviously you will need to know some of this to actually do your job, but keep this to the bare minimum and focus as much as you can on building skills you can take with you.

But you’re not done there: just as importantly, you have to do this learning in a way that can demonstrate these skills to future employers.

Some of the best ways to do this are:

  • Volunteer for internal projects that can show you delivered results using these skills
  • Look for certifications your company will sponsor that are recognized in the marketplace
  • Or if you don’t have the right opportunities in your day-job, do projects outside of work that show you have additional skills. (for example, you’re a developer but want to move into product management — launching a digital product of your own shows that you have the digital marketing and design skills that you don’t get a chance to develop in your day-to-day job)

The bottom line is: you have to always be looking at what skills are important in the marketplace.

But not only do you have to develop those skills, you have to do some real-life work to show them off!

It’s not easy, and in many ways I don’t think it is a fair system for employees today. It is one of the reasons that I left banking not too long ago.

But it was only after I was confident in the skills that I had developed that I felt I could go and strike out on my own.

In any case, whether it is working for a big corporation or starting something on your own, nothing is spelled out for you like it used to be— you have you have to chart your own path.