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The Learning Curve

Throw out the “career ladder”: 4 strategies for navigating a 21st-century workplace

Today’s careers don’t offer a clear path forward, but the rewards can be worth more than a gold watch at retirement.
Credit: Annelisa Leinbach
Key Takeaways
  • The career ladder was a handy metaphor in the 20th century, but it’s long out of date. 
  • Today’s workers must navigate a “career lattice” of possibilities and pitfalls.
  • To chart a career path that is uniquely yours, start by defining your version of success.

Everyone knows how the story is supposed to go. You start your career in a low-level position and prove your merit by doing your job well. Your skill and gusto catch the eye of upper management, and they promote you. 

From there, it’s rung after rung up the corporate ladder until retirement. You leave the company, head high and customary gold watch in hand, to enjoy your golden years. Buy a fifth-wheeler, make ships in bottles, or take up macramé. What happens next is finally your call.

There’s just one problem with this story: It’s grossly outmoded. Today’s career paths aren’t nearly as straightforward as our grandparents’. Emerging technologies, economic upheavals, and geopolitical turbulence have defined the 21st century as one in which new realities materialize with unprecedented speed. Under this ever-shifting influence, most people have had to make tough decisions and compromises to their original course.

To help you better understand those decisions, Neil Irwin, senior economics correspondent at the New York Times, has studied the 21st-century job market and devised strategies to better navigate it.

1. Replace the career ladder with a lattice

One reason the career ladder is such a beloved metaphor is that it’s easy. Every rung has been set, and you climb for as long as you can. It has a pleasant, paint-by-numbers vibe. You know what the end result will be before starting.

Fair or not, today’s careers ask more of you. You must be responsible for choosing your path on what Irwin calls the “career lattice.” Do you try to move up at your current employer or shift sideways to another company? Maybe a diagonal move to another department, or a step down to reposition yourself for a completely different career path?

Those decisions require you to consider your career goals alongside large-scale economic shifts. “Figuring out how to have a successful career is really about understanding how the economy is shifting, how you can be in a position to take advantage of those shifts rather than being steamrolled by them,” Irwin said in an interview.

That means regular self-evaluation and staying up-to-date on the trends in your industry — which in turn requires research and dedication. You need to know how your industry operates (at home and abroad), what factors could upset the status quo, and how you might benefit from upskilling and interdisciplinary approaches.

2. Be a team player

When Irwin started his journalism career, he was one stop in an assembly-line production. He wrote a story and then set it on a conveyor belt of fact-checkers, copy editors, page editors, and printers that spit out the end product: a newspaper on someone’s doorstep.

This approach was common across many industries. “We thought that way, too,” Irwin said. “If you wanted to have a good career, everybody knew exactly how to do it.”

Digital technology has broken those workplace dynamics and replaced them with something else: the fluid team. While this new dynamic makes it more difficult to define one’s role, it comes with certain advantages. One such advantage is the ability for people to support each other. You can augment the weaknesses of a colleague while their strengths can support your role, too. 

Compare that to the assembly line approach where everyone is responsible for their widget. Whether your part fails or succeeds, that’s on you.

But no matter how talented one person is, a group can always outperform him or her. Groups simply have more knowledge, more experiences, more time, and more worldviews on which to draw. For this reason, today’s team dynamics can help you develop professionally and connect with others in ways the teams of yesteryear could not.

I think the key is being thoughtful about what your real purpose is, and what your real drive is, and making sure that the career choices you make, the kinds of organizations you work for, the kinds of skills you cultivate, are aligned with that broader set of interests,

– Neil Irwin

3. Be prepared to make adjustments

The shift to digital has also changed business priorities. It’s no longer about just doing what the boss tells you to do. Employers today are looking for people who are customer-centric, digitally fluent, proactive, and multi-skilled.

“I think thinking of customers first has been the biggest adjustment,” Irwin said. “It’s not just about getting a gold star from the boss.”

Irwin noted that workers must become all these things, but the keyword is “become.” You don’t have to be all of these on day one. You can (and should) develop into these roles through upskilling

Throughout your career, you’ll need to continue learning and adapting. Even if you work the same job for 20 years, it will look very different 10 years from now. Technological and economic shifts will see to that. And you’ll need new skills to adapt to that work environment.

Luckily, those very shifts have unleashed a slew of new learning opportunities. Online education is ubiquitous and offered at any price from free to premium. Many colleges offer extended-learning programs so community members can upskill long after their formal education. And libraries have never been better connected through communal and international resources.

An old man fishes in Montenegro.
The career ladder path may have been easy, but the one-track path rendered little freedom for people until their retirement. (Credit: Pink_colibri/Unsplash)

4. Define your own win

The dynamics of the 21st century are global, multifaceted, and ultimately scary. If you can push past that, however, you’ll find something your grandparents may have desired: a sense of freedom and volition before retirement.

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With the career ladder, the only direction to go was up. Today’s lattice structure creates possibilities. You get to define your win and move in the direction where you see a future of fulfillment and self-actualization.

“I titled [my] book How to Win in a Winner-Take-All World, not How to Make the Most Money in a Winner-Take-All World, not How to Become a CEO,” Irwin said. “And the reason is, there are a lot of different forms of winning, a lot of different forms of success.”

But the onus to define your success is on you — not your company’s career track. You have to decide if it means:

  • Joining the C-suite.
  • Making a lot of money.
  • Pursuing professional goals or challenges.
  • Maintaining a rich home life.
  • Making time for hobbies or side interests beyond your day job.

“I think the key is being thoughtful about what your real purpose is, and what your real drive is, and making sure that the career choices you make, the kinds of organizations you work for, the kinds of skills you cultivate, are aligned with that broader set of interests,” Irwin added.

To pick one of many examples, if you want to work from home so you can stay close to your family, you’ll need to learn the technologies that make remote work possible. At the same time, those technologies are cheaper, more widely available, and more user-friendly than ever before. 

In the end, more people have more choices today than at arguably any time in our history. The win conditions aren’t set externally; they are created internally. That is the most rewarding — and perhaps scariest — facet of navigating a career in the 21st century.

Learn more on Big Think+

With a diverse library of lessons from the world’s biggest thinkers, Big Think+ helps businesses get smarter, faster. To access Neil Irwin’s full class for your organization, request a demo.


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