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The Redefinition of Career: It’s Time to Move On

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The Redefinition of Career: It’s Time to Move On

Forget Everything You Know About the ‘Career’. It’s Time for a Redefinition. Your LinkedIn feed has, no doubt,...

6 Minutes Read

Forget Everything You Know About the ‘Career’. It’s Time for a Redefinition.

Your LinkedIn feed has, no doubt, been full of indicators that a new definition of career is coming: the gig economy, the death of the one-company-career, lifelong learning, flattening hierarchical structures…

These trends, amongst many others, are chipping away at our traditional view of career. This traditional view was crystallised after the industrial revolution and represents a model based on achievement, bureaucracy and linear promotion. A model that is no longer fit for purpose.

A (Very) Brief History of Career Phases

Source: Center for the Future of Work at Cognizant

Phase 1: Ascription (pre-industrial revolution)

  • Work was assigned to an individual based on status at birth.
  • The idea of ‘promotion’ was not fully-formed.
  • Skills learnt (usually in apprenticeship) were applicable across a wide range of jobs.

Phase 2: Achievement (post-industrial revolution)

  • Competition for labour heats up, introducing achievement-oriented labour structures: promotion, job categories and wage structures, but also work rules, disciplinary procedures and bureaucracy.
  • ‘Formal’ career structures (one-size-fits-all) are the norm.
  • Skills learnt (usually within the organisation) are less transferable and ultimately ‘firm-specific’, which supports the one-company-career model.

Phase 3: Autonomy (shift underway)

  • Control shifts from employer to employee. ‘Informal’ career structures (defined by the individual as opposed to the organisation) are the norm.
  • Activities are divided between man and the new machine, reforming labour structures.
  • Skills (learnt independently) become more fluid and far less firm-specific. The ability to learn is the ability to work.
  • Workers can expect to work for many different organisations, in many different job categories, throughout their career.

Introducing Phase 3: Autonomy

The defining distinction between Phases 2 and 3 is the shift in power from the hands of employer, to the hands of employee. This is why I term the third phase ‘autonomy’ (ascription and achievement already established descriptors of Phases 1 and 2.)

Let’s look at the three core facets of Phase 3:

1. Work is being reshaped according to the preferences of the individual

New ways to find work makes life easy for workers. ‘Swipe right’ met recruitment with the launch of job-hunting app ‘Switch’, also known as ‘Tinder for Jobs’.

The pressure is on to boost employer brand. With nearly 50% of workers stating that they wouldn’t recommend their place of work to a friend, according to Glassdoor data, employers have a lot to learn about online review culture. A potential candidate isn’t reading your glossy ‘about us’ pages, they’re reading Glassdoor and quizzing their LinkedIn contacts.

Whereas in Phase 2 employers could tempt and retain employees with straight-forward talent management processes (e.g. linear promotion), things have become far more complex in Phase 3.

Individual motivation is becoming ever-more important. Organisations are pressured to tailor their talent management practices to each individual. (P.S. the solution? Talent Intelligence. Read about it here.)

2. Promotion: this time it’s complicated

The up-and-out promotion model was created during Phase 2 alongside basic bureaucratic principles to lock-in talent. Expectations on employers today are far more varied and salary is no longer top of the list of concerns. The opportunity to grow and develop has surpassed salary to become the no. 1 reason workers stay with their employer.

Employers need to stop relying on upwards mobility to retain talent and start focusing on internal mobility. Too few employers are offering movement across departments to fulfil the growth potential and curiosity of employees, stunting their development and forcing them to look externally. Remember: It’s not always all about the upwards promotion, folks.

3. Skills come full circle

Have you ever not joined a new company and been utterly perplexed by the long list of acronyms unique to your new employer? What about a task that is exactly the same as one you had at your old job, but new systems, processes and procedures make it indecipherable?

‘Firm-specific skills’ were born in Phase 2 as another way to lock-in workers. Organisations were so invested in this idea that they took on the cost of upskilling workers. (In Phase 1, by training mostly through apprenticeships, workers bore the brunt of the cost themselves.)

Now that we are in Phase 3, taking on the computing and digital industrial revolution in the workplace, we all have a lot to learn. Despite the continued investment from organisations in learning solutions (learning software is the fasting growing segment in HR technology), the skills gap is still substantial. 76% of business leaders face a daunting skills gap and 73% think it will widen in the next five years, according to recent research by the CFoW.

It’s time to rethink the relationship between learning and work. Some workers are already going back to the Phase 1 model, paying for external training in new forms (e.g. Degreed, LinkedIn Learning) to ensure transferable skills that will protect them from obsolescence. Couple this trend with newfound access to information and it’s no wonder organisations are struggling to keep up.

My new research will unpack this in much more detail. Stay tuned.

Phase 3: We Get it Now

I’ve briefly mentioned ‘formal’ (Phase 2) and ‘informal’ (Phase 3) careers. Formal careers are defined by the employer and therefore identifiable based on high-level information from the organisation, irrespective of individual. Informal careers are only knowable with specific information on an individual’s unique career choices over a long period of time. Something impressively difficult to acquire. Until LinkedIn was founded, that is.

Organisations should work with this new abundance of data to understand Phase 3 better and give their employees want they want out of a career.


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