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For many people who are entering the workforce, and even some who’ve been here for a while, the traditional idea of building a career isn’t even on their radar.AFP/Getty Images

When Abbey Kelly was a kid, they loved the idea of work.

“I was overjoyed at the idea of going to university to study and do something big. I was like, ‘Oh, I could do so many different things,’” they said.

But now, they’re 26, they’ve already had to take time off because of burnout and they’re not sure work is as exciting, or important, as they once thought.

“Before the pandemic, I was already going through the process of trying to devalue the amount that I was really pushing for work to fill a big thing in my life,” they said. “I realized, ‘Oh, [work] doesn’t need to be the be all, end all. I can find joy in hobbies and relationships with people.’ But then it came full circle – I need to make money to live, so I’d rather do something I enjoy.”

They aren’t the only young person who’s feeling malaise about their employment prospects.

According to an October, 2022, McKinsey survey of 25,000 Americans, “Gen Z respondents who are working are more likely to have independent jobs or multiple jobs than older workers. Unlike other generations, they are less likely to expect this period of financial insecurity to end and have high levels of doubts about their eventual ability to either buy homes or retire.”

Put another way, for many people who are entering the work force, and even some who’ve been here for a while, the traditional idea of building a career – that is, landing a decent entry-level gig at a good company and steadily moving up the ranks – isn’t even on their radar.

To be fair, the ‘traditional’ idea of a career is relatively new.

This style of work began to emerge in the 1900s, in large part because of industrialization. According to the U.S. Library of Congress, the rise of manufacturing jobs “led to the need for more administrative and clerical workers, [so-called white-collar employees who earned] salaries instead of wages by the hour or piece of work. White-collar jobs required at least a high-school education and certain conventions of deportment and dress that the blue-collar jobs did not. A social stratification began to emerge that made white-collar jobs seem more prestigious to many than blue-collar ones.”

Post-Second World War, rapid economic expansion led to the creation of even more white-collar jobs, and increased access to education meant there were more workers to fill them. During the 1950s and 1960s, it became common for people to work at only one or two companies for their entire working lives – and their professional progression followed a ‘career ladder,’ a model where workers could expect to advance in seniority and pay over a long period of time.

And for a few decades, that worked very well – for some people.

People who could consistently devote the time required to work their way up this career ladder (largely, white men) tended to succeed within this model. Companies also benefited because this system created employee loyalty, as did governments, who were able to outsource some of their civic responsibilities to the private sector.

But “it wasn’t as good for women, entrepreneurs, new grads – anyone who didn’t, or couldn’t, toe the company line,” says Daneal Charney, HR expert and executive in residence at MaRS Discovery District. “This system was not really a meritocracy; it was more based on relationships with upper management and putting in the time.”

Now, the way many people think about their work lives has shifted – and according to Matissa Hollister, assistant professor of organizational behaviour at McGill University’s Desautels School of Management, the roots of that change can be found in the 80s and 90s.

“The post-World War II boom period where companies were successful [and] offered lots of opportunities built that traditional career model. But then that boom period starts to fade. You see the oil crisis; in the U.S., you see a deep recession in the 80s,” she says. “And, you start to see downsizing.”

Downsizing, or reducing costs via staff layoffs, wasn’t always about economic uncertainty; often, it was about shareholder power.

As Dr. Hollister explains, companies officially already had the legal responsibility to maximize share price over everything else, but until the 80s, that was rarely enforced.

Once shareholders started demanding companies focus on boosting profit, though, they were incentivized to cut costs, whether that was through layoffs, stagnant wages or outsourcing work to contractors.

Unsurprisingly, many people saw these changes “as violating what some people call the ‘psychological contract’ that was made between employers and workers: that if workers work hard and are loyal to the company, employers will provide stability, security and upward mobility,” Dr. Hollister says.

Things changed even more drastically around 2010, largely driven by millennials and especially millennial women. “Work was becoming digital and a new generation of millennials were questioning the linear career path. It was the beginning of people saying, ‘I don’t know if we buy into this whole laddered approach. Maybe there are other ways,’” Ms. Charney says.

This approach was encouraged by the popularity of Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 career tome, Lean In, where she explicitly debunks the idea of a career ladder, writing, “The most common metaphor for careers is a ladder, but this concept no longer applies to most workers. As of 2010, the average American had eleven jobs from the ages of eighteen to forty-six alone.”

Instead, Ms. Sandberg proffered the idea – first coined by the writer Pattie Sellers – of a “career jungle gym,” a model which presents greater flexibility in a career path.

“There’s only one way to get to the top of a ladder, but there are many ways to get to the top of a jungle gym. The jungle gym model benefits everyone, but especially women who might be starting careers, switching careers, getting blocked by external barriers, or re-entering the work force after taking time off,” wrote Ms. Sandberg. “The ability to forge a unique path with occasional dips, detours, and even dead ends presents a better chance for fulfilment.”

For all of Lean In’s flaws (it mostly addresses people in the knowledge economy or professional fields who already have a measure of power, who tend to be white, straight, cisgender and at least upper-middle class, and it doesn’t offer ideas for systemic change that would benefit all workers), it provided ambitious but frustrated young workers a new model of professional achievement, especially when combined with a rise in non-traditional modes of employment.

In retrospect, the Lean In ethos dovetails nicely with the rise of the creator economy, which allows anyone to monetize their own creative expression via social-media platform. It also reflects a profound shift in the way we even conceptualize what a career is.

“Increasingly, my students tell me, ‘Oh, people have told me that I can’t count on an employer providing the job for me any more,’” Dr. Hollister says, pointing at what he calls an “ideology of worker self-reliance, which is this idea that a successful career is one where you make the career yourself; you strategically move between employers and find opportunities.”

This new way of thinking about work encouraged young people to hop from job to job, accumulating skills and experience, but not necessarily sticking around for the long haul. It also allowed them to increase their salaries more quickly than if they stuck around at one company hoping for a merit increase alongside their cost-of-living raise, and to widen the scope of their experience.

As Calgary-based HR professional Adeola Atofarati explains, “there are so many opportunities out there, [so] career changes are easier now. We have business executives courting careers in tech; globalization and technology have made remote jobs more appealing, and the rave of social media is increasingly drawing people into the creative industries. And that is a good thing to see,” she says. “I believe it lays a solid foundation when building a career – to explore and develop vast knowledge and then build competencies in one thing you are really good at.”

There are downsides to this type of thinking, of course.

Blurring the lines between professional and personal fulfilment encouraged overwork. Millennials are also entering new life phases where stability and job security are increasingly important – but in many sectors, businesses see the profit-maximizing potential of relying on freelancers and short-term contractors instead of filling full-time positions. And, for many, the COVID-19 pandemic prompted a re-evaluation of our obsession with productivity.

Ms. Charney says the new ideal career is often ‘fractional,’ meaning it takes up some of a person’s workweek, allowing them to spend the rest of their time on a side-hustle, passion project or with family.

That’s especially true for Gen Z, who are the first generation of true digital natives to enter the work force and who came of age during the career-as-jungle-gym era. It’s unlikely we’ll ever go back to the old idea of a career – and that will have important impacts on the way we organize our society.

Companies are going to need to develop strategies for dealing with conflicts of time or interest. Someone needs to ensure that freelancers and contractors, who don’t have salaries or benefits, are being paid at least minimum wage. As individuals increasingly exist in public spheres, questions will arise around social personas, and who really represents a business.

And perhaps most importantly, it will no longer make sense for our health benefits or pension plans to be tied to one employer.

“No matter what sort of commitment level you choose in different work situations, we all need a minimum wage, we all need certain benefits,” says Ms. Charney. “I think that’s what needs to be figured out by the regulators and employment lawyers and HR professionals. We need to say, ‘Okay, what does this future social contract look like?’”

Unfortunately, no one has the answer to that question just yet.

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