Skip to main contentA logo with &quat;the muse&quat; in dark blue text.
Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

How Careers Have Changed (and How to Manage Yours Accordingly)

At the end of the long job search tunnel, you might want to sign the first job offer you get.

Or, maybe not. Maybe after all that hard work, you want to really make sure you know what it means when you sign on the dotted line. Are you signing your life away? Committing yourself to one company for the next 10 years?

No, not really.

Today, one in four workers has been with their current employer for less than a year, and one in two for less than five years. And it’s not just in the U.S. In Germany, a full two-thirds of younger workers do not have permanent jobs. Instead, they have “fixed-term contracts,” and companies let them go whenever their contract ends.

No longer are people cultivating a long-term relationship with their employer. This shift has created a new transactional model of interacting with companies. But before we dig into that, let’s back up.

Jobs and careers have gone through a couple big shifts if you go back far enough. In the 19th century, most people in the U.S. worked in agriculture and rather than jobs, people performed chores. The focus wasn’t on skills or qualifications, but character. (Ha! Wouldn’t that be nice?) Praise was bestowed on the honest, hard working, and altruistic.

Later, in the industrial era, urbanization and rapid technological change created factory and assembly line work. People flocked to cities to get “jobs.” Personality tests were created to help workers find their permanent job “match.”

Then, the post-WWII economic boom created the middle class, suburbs, and bureaucracy. Corporations were born, and the industrial assembly line inclined upward into the corporate ladder. The word “career” entered the common lexicon.

Now we’ve moved on again. Corporations downsized, flattened, and restructured. Willingly or not, the era of the corporate job is ending.

Career used to mean a life-long relationship with a company. You give 30 years, the company takes care of you and gives you a pension. The shift means companies are no longer made up of workers, but work to be doled out. And it’s not just companies; workers seem less interested in staying put, too. Employees today are temporary, contract, freelance, part-time, external, or adjunct.

The shift from corporate career ladders to project-based careers has been met with mixed reactions. While many mourn the loss of pensions and the safety net that represented, others celebrate the ownership they’ve been able to create in their careers.

And yes, the loss of a predictable career makes it hard to form plans for the future, but it also allows for opportunities to pivot and change direction. Rather than a rigid corporate ladder, we now have a career path, and that path is made by moving (probably, a lot).

Today, people are not trying to follow the script, but figuring out their story.

With this new need for people to take more responsibility and become more flexible in preparing for and adapting to career changes, career management has become even more important. Now, career success depends not on one big decision in your 20s, but on relentlessly learning and trying new things.

It used to be that your job or career was fixed, virtually for life. But now your career will probably be full of ambiguity and tension because it will inevitably be uncertain, experimental, disjointed, and ever-changing.

So, what now? Whether you’re just starting out or you’ve been working for the same company for over 20 years, you’re going to need to start thinking about your next move. The biggest career management mistake you can make in the world of work today would be to sit still. Be prepared—learn a new technology, take on side projects, grow your network. And, as Stanford Business School reports, be prepared to “repot” your career every 10 years or so to keep your work engaging, innovative, and meaningful.

Because we can certainly expect things to change again.

Want to learn more? Watch Mark Savickas’ presentation at the 2013 National Career Development Association's Global Career Development Conference.

Photo of man in hot air balloon courtesy of Shutterstock.

A logo with "the muse" in white text.