The Shifting Nature of Work: Why We Need a New Career Model for the 21st Century

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

Over the last several years, we’ve seen massive disruptions in terms of both technology and workplace organization. One aspect of work that has changed very little, though, is the fundamental concept of what a career is. Born in the Second Industrial Revolution, the ideas of linear careers and 9–5 jobs are simply no longer suited to the modern economy. Here’s what you need to know about how the nature of work is changing and why we need a new career model to meet the requirements of the 21st-century economy.

Why Is the Linear Career Path Outdated?

Under the old career model, workers followed an extremely linear progression from high school to college and then into the working world. Once a person embarked on a career path, he or she would move into increasingly higher positions within a company or transfer to other companies in the same field. In this way, a worker could expect to gradually progress up the career ladder and achieve higher and higher levels of financial success.

The problem, however, is that this approach to careers no longer fits the realities of the modern world. Today, technological change occurs at such high speeds that workers cannot remain relevant by developing skills in college and relying on those skills throughout their careers. By some estimates, up to 54 percent of the world’s workforce will require upskilling as early as 2022 in order to remain relevant in their jobs.

In addition to the rapid pace of technological change and the need for evolving skills it creates, workers are also turning away from the linear career path for personal reasons. The rise of the gig economy, for example, has given workers more freedom to set their own hours and control their work-life balances. Likewise, remote working opportunities have proven disruptive to the idea of a linear career progression. More than one third of workers today say that they would prioritize flexible working conditions over a promotion to a more prestigious job.

What Does the 21st Century Career Model Look Like?

As you can see, the traditional career model is currently failing both in terms of allowing workers to remain relevant in their fields and providing them with the work-life balances they seek. To meet the needs of both businesses and employees in the 21st century, a fundamentally different career model is required.

The core component of the modern career model must be a focus on continuous, lifelong learning that takes place within the context of work. Rather than learning skills in college and applying those same skills over the course of their careers, workers should instead be brought into a series of skill-based learning cycles. In each cycle, a worker learns new skills and implements them simultaneously, receiving feedback and ongoing guidance along the way. In this way, learning and workplace functionality can be brought together, rather than viewed as two separate parts in a linear career progression.

The workplace must also become both more flexible and more personalized to succeed in the new work environment. As we have already seen, flexible working conditions are a top priority for modern workers. In addition to flexibility, organizations must focus on personalizing both learning cycles and tasks to the interests, strengths and goals of individual workers. By placing less focus on restrictive job titles and instead personalizing the work experience, organizations can help employees find the niche in which they will be most fulfilled and most successful.

How the New Career Model Benefits Businesses and Workers

Making the change to this updated career model offers substantial benefits for both workers and the businesses that employ them. For workers, the benefits include greater career satisfaction and a work-life balance that allows them to successfully reach both their career and personal goals. Businesses, on the other hand, benefit from a more productive, engaged and agile workforce that is constantly learning and improving its skills. By abandoning the restrictive and outdated linear career model, both parties can see substantial benefits and better prepare themselves for the realities of work in the coming decades.

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