A Metaphor for 21st Century Careers

A Metaphor for 21st Century Careers

It’s time to retire the corporate ladder. The rungs have weakened. They’re no longer safe.

It was an apt metaphor. For its time. But, that time is over.

Today, work is fissured. It’s far less stable. Loyalty is nostalgic. Agility is in.

We’re in need of a new metaphor. We need a new way of thinking and talking about careers.

I often say that today’s career paths “zig” and “zag.” Which is true. It accounts for the loss of the linear part of yesterday’s careers.

But, there’s something haphazard about zigging and zagging. There’s no sense of progression. There’s no sense of accomplishment. It’s as if you’re adrift. Endlessly tacking with the wind.

Through a Twitter conversation with Tuition Fit, I was introduced to the idea of “winding” career paths. Which far better accounts for the inability to always see ahead.

Because the length of time a worker spends in any one job has been shortened to just 2-4 years, it’s now far more difficult to see ahead — like one could on the corporate ladder. We can’t as easily look up and see what skills we’ll need. Or who in the company is important to know. 

So, building on this idea of winding, while wanting a metaphor that incorporated progression, I stumbled upon a “switchback.”

I can’t say that I’ve ever climbed a mountain. But, I’ve certainly hiked up a few. Making me well acquainted with switchback paths. You know, those winding paths that allow so many of us non-climbers to enjoy the most exhilarating parts of our national parks.

A well-designed switchback makes gradual progression upward. There are straightaways and curves. Times when you can see ahead, and times when you can’t. Which, I think, was the most poignant part of my Twitter conversation with Tuition Fit — that preparing kids for the curves is likely more critical than preparing kids for the straightaways.

How do you prepare for what you can’t see coming? I think, in many ways, it’s the same way you prepare for a day-long hike up a mountain. You pack a bag that allows you to be prepared — for anything. Hunger. Thirst. Wildlife. Weather.

School certainly puts some basic tools in your bag. Similar to having food and water. But, that won’t be enough. As kids progress through their careers, they’ll need more than the basics. They’ll need more than what they can acquire in school, whether high school, technical school, or college. They’ll need to keep adding equipment to their bags. They’ll need to keep learning. Lifelong learning.

And, they’ll need to be prepared for obstacles. Like when a fallen tree blocks the path. Or worse, a snake. We face obstacles on our career paths all the time. Some more challenging than others. A bad boss. A missed opportunity. A job loss. Teaching our kids emotional intelligence skills will give them what they need to handle and overcome those obstacles.

Weather on a mountain can change. Drastically and quickly. Sometimes, it’s best to be patient and wait it out. Other times, you just need to adapt. You know, add a hat, throw on a jacket. Conditions can change in careers too. Sometimes, just as rapidly as the weather. Getting a new boss can quickly change a workplace culture. New equipment or software can require quick adaptation of skills. Teaching our kids to be adaptable and patient can help them weather these storms.

Ok. You get the idea. You see where I’m headed.

As I worked through this idea of retiring the ladder and bringing on the switchback, I was struck by the simplicity of the ladder. It’s just a steady progression upward. One rung at a time.

Updating to the image of a switchback is far more complicated. Now, we’ve got to talk about packing a bag. And, what to put in it. There’s necessary warnings about snakes and storms. All this preparation before they even start on the path. Is all that really necessary?

I think it is. If we want our kids to be prepared. If we want them to know what to expect. Then yes, it’s necessary. And, it’s worth it.

Climbing a ladder is work. There’s usually some unpleasant task involved like painting or, even worse, cleaning gutters. But, hiking a mountain is exhilarating. Sure, it’s hard. But, even the journey to the top is an adventure.

Perhaps, this makes the switchback a far more apt and beneficial metaphor. It’s more complicated. But, it’s more honest. And, it’s more promising. It’s more promising than the drudgery of climbing a ladder. It holds the promise and opportunity of the unknown and the reward of the accomplishment of getting to the top.

But, perhaps, most importantly, there’s nothing that says you can’t climb down. Start over on a new path. Climb a new mountain. Have a new adventure.

When we talked about the corporate ladder, there was only ever one. It was never okay to climb down a few rungs. Or to start over. That was seen as failure.

Now, perhaps, we’re in a position to broaden our thinking. Give our kids permission to enjoy the journey. Take their time. Or, move quickly. Be satisfied with one, or be thrilled by the challenge of starting again. 

Their future is not yet written. Their map is not yet drawn. So, we can give our kids something new — starting with a metaphor.

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