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Are We Abandoning the Idea of Just One Career?

The pandemic made us question our purpose. Technology is helping us achieve it.

Key points

  • Traditionally, people specialize in one skillset or field and remain in it for their entire careers.
  • The last few years have seen people not only change jobs, but move into entirely new fields.
  • Access to online education means people have the power to reinvent themselves at any age.
  • The pandemic made us reconsider our priorities and revisit whether our careers were fulfilling.
Pexels/Ketut Subiyanto
Source: Pexels/Ketut Subiyanto

Many of us have a parent or grandparent who worked for decades for one company. The career-long relationship with one employer was a two-way street: workers were incredibly loyal and not only worked for the company, but also bought their products. Employers, for their part, offered pensions, healthcare, and vacation. By the 1990s, most of that lifetime employment relationship had ended.

By the time that Generation X had entered the workforce, the idea of a 30- or 40-year commitment to one company had faded. But the idea of a single career—to learn a specific skill or focus on one industry for all one’s working years—was still common. While someone might work for multiple organizations over the life of their career, they were likely to stay in the same field.

The "stages of career growth" is an idea based on the concept that after a few years of mastering a skillset, one would then leverage that experience over the following decades. Over time, one would see more pay and better opportunities, but almost always by “staying in one’s lane.”

Perhaps it’s time to rethink whether people stay in one career for a lifetime.

The idea that people stay in one industry and continue to build and grow a career based on the same skill set is changing. We are now seeing people reinvent themselves, starting off as lawyers and becoming bakers, or leaving a career in special education to become a podcaster. The Great Resignation has been about more than simply moving to a new place in order to get a job in the same field; people are revisiting whether their current field or specialty still meets their needs. The conventional argument is that progressing through stages of a career means by age 45 you will see a reduction in new opportunities and will focus instead on mentoring others. But increasingly—especially since the pandemic—people seem less daunted by the supposed lack of opportunity to enter a new field in the middle or late stages of their careers.

The opportunity of the online.

The shift away from the one-employer model to multiple employers during the 1990s was in part a reaction to increased mobility, a highly educated Generation X that prized a work-life balance, and more women entering the workforce. People were less motivated by the stability of a single employer that could provide a (usually male) worker with enough income to support their family without leaving their current location. Instead, people wanted to find the best opportunity to fulfill financial and emotional needs, and were willing and able to relocate repeatedly to achieve those goals. Perhaps now we see people choosing new careers in part because of another significant shift—much more education is available via the internet. Whether it’s formal online courses, or YouTube and TikTok videos, access to information means you can learn almost any new skillset if you have a device and decent Wi-Fi. In addition, the internet has made supplies and equipment more accessible, so solopreneurs and startups can enter a market on a limited budget. And our cultural and social norms have changed as well, making the idea of shifting from one field to another far more acceptable.

The pandemic changed what “risk” means.

The other reality of the last few years is that the pandemic changed how people prioritized their needs. For some, the aversion to risk faded and the fear of not taking a chance of trying something new motivated them to explore other opportunities. In service industries, where working in-person was literally dangerous in 2020, people left in droves. Add to that the fact that the average food service worker made $23,000 per year in 2020, the cost of taking a risk was relatively low. Why not pursue your passion or try to monetize a hobby? Those who lost their jobs or were furloughed suddenly found themselves at home with time to pursue other interests, and even once their old careers became available, they passed on the chance to go back.

You can educate yourself online at any age. That kind of access to information brings power.

Many people will continue to progress through the traditional stages of a career path and focus on how to get better (and be better rewarded) as they build more and more years in one field. But it’s likely that we have seen a permanent shift in a sizable portion of the population. In November 2022, the hospitality and food sector still had a nearly nine percent rate of open jobs. People may eventually fill those positions, but continued calls to raise the minimum wage, increase workplace safety, and other improvements might be required to bring workers back. And not everyone left a prior career because they felt it was unsafe or underpaid. Some people have simply decided to pursue something that brings more meaning to their lives. The access provided by technology lifted logistical and financial obstacles, while the pandemic created more existential and emotional motivation. At the end of the day, what gives us a sense of purpose might not be what we do, but how it makes us feel.