There's No Such Thing As a 'Career Path'

  • By Glynnis MacNicol,
  • January 25, 2016

On a recent trip abroad I met an 80-year-old man who was traveling with his family to celebrate both his birthday and his 55th wedding anniversary. After some friendly dinner conversation, during which everyone at the table wanted to know what I did and why I was traveling alone (the answer to both questions was that I was on a writing assignment) he revealed that he'd worked at the same company his entire life—beginning when he was 23 and newly out of the service, all the way up through the ranks to retirement.

career path
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"I was lucky," he said, "that doesn't exist anymore."

To put it mildly, I thought, contemplating this rare creature in front of me who had lived out what for so many was long considered the definition of the American Dream.

No longer.

The fact is, I can count on one hand the amount of people I know under the age of 40 who have remained in the same profession, let alone with the same company, for more than five years. Five decades? It seems more likely we'll all be living on the moon by then than holding similar jobs to the ones we have now.

I tried for a minute to imagine what it would be like to stay in the same job for even one decade. But wait! I thought, that is exactly what I had hoped to do when I started out on my so-called career path nearly ten years ago. At the time I had just made the leap from book publishing to writing for the (then brand new) Huffington Post. If anyone had asked me what I was aiming for as I clocked increasingly crazy hours, I would have said something like Maureen Dowd's spot on the New York Times op-ed pages or Frank Rich's column in the Sunday edition. At the time, to me, both posts represented the pinnacle of the path I had put myself on as a writer and a journalist; they were positions of influence to aim for and then occupy for a long time.

In hindsight that admission sounds like the lead up to some sort of joke, its (not-so-funny) punchline being the arrival of Internet. And perhaps the best example of the chaos brought on by the digital revolution is my own résumé: with the exception of the years I spent as a waitress in my twenties, I have never stayed in any one job for more three years; my general average hovering around eighteen months. I have gone from waitressing, to book publishing, to journalism, to business owner, to freelance writer in very short order. Ten years ago that sort of leap-frogging, which in my case was mostly the result of a panicked (and, as it turned out, successful) effort to say one step ahead of a crumbling industry, would not only been unheard of, it would have been considered career suicide. Now it's the norm.

"There is no such thing as a career path now," says Karen Shnek Lippman, a Managing Director and recruiter at the Howard-Sloan-Koller Group. "The only career goal you should be focused on is staying relevant."

Even a casual glance at the successful professional women I know suggests this is a lesson we have all learned hard and fast.

"Not only am I not interested in one career path," says my friend Christina Wallace, 30, who, in the three years I've known her, has launched a fashion business, run an accelerator program, and currently heads up the BridgeUp: STEM @ AMNH at the Natural History museum, "I'm not even sure that that option really exists anymore."

If it does, it's a dying beast. "People in their twenties are job jumpers," Shnek Lippman says. "I think it's reflective of the culture we live in—they grew up as natives in the emerging technology landscape."

That the under-30 set doesn't pursue a job with the longterm in mind is not the newest news. A 2012 study revealed that a whopping 91 percent of Millenials don't expect to stay in the same job for more than three years. But a job is different than a career, and the ability to make the leap between a wide variety of professions seems to be the emerging trait of many successful professionals.

"The person we are hunting for has multiple skill sets," Shnek Lippman says of her hiring process. Also? And this is key: They aren't afraid to diversify.

"I cobble together a career based on what means the most to me," writer Ashley Ford, 28, tells me when I ask her if she can even envision a career path for herself. "At this point, I've had enough jobs, and enough false starts, to realize I don't have or want a well-planned path. I want a lifestyle. But I also love learning new things. I'm currently taking a class in web design."

This comfort with risk may be instinctive to young people who graduate from college with multiple internships and highly-polished social media feeds, but it can be overwhelming for those who grew up assuming a relatively reliable path was the key to success.

These days, however, staying in one place for too long might be the equivalent of career suicide.

According to Shnek Lippman, advocating for a varied career should be top of your priority list. "You cant just be good at one thing anymore," she says. "You have to be good at multiple things."

"The fact that I have covered gossip, crime, progressive politics, and travel for newspapers, magazines, social media, and web publications has made me so much more well-rounded and opened up so many doors for the future," says Jo Piazza, another on of my multiemployed friends. Piazza, who is Deputy Editor of Yahoo Travel has just released The Knockoff, a new novel, co-written with Lucy Sykes (get an exclusive sneak peek here). The story revolves around Imogen, a well-established fashion magazine editor who returns to work after six months away only to discover her position has been usurped by her former tech-savvy assistant, Eve.

"It can be terrifying at first," Piazza says of the catch-up required from people who are by no means past their prime, but whose career-establishing years fall firmly in the pre-Facebook age bracket, "but the wandering path makes us more well-rounded and better at what we do."

This, by the way, includes those who are doing the hiring. Shnek-Lippman is quick to point out that if companies hope to keep their best employees, they need to focus on keeping themselves enticing to employees—and not just with big salaries, benefits, and bonuses. Job seekers need to be sure they are signing up to work at a company that not only appreciates technology but also has the ability to devote resources to it.

And then you should get ready to change again.

"No one still has it figured out," Shnek Lippman says.

This article originally appeard on and is reprinted with permission.

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