Are ‘squiggly careers’ the new normal?

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In the final article in a series of extracts from important, new books by Jericho friends, please enjoy ‘Squiggly Careers’ by Sarah Ellis and Helen Tupper. Moving frequently between roles, industries and locations is fast becoming the ‘new normal’. With all the uncertainty present in our modern lives, this book helps us play to our strengths; discover our values; find our confidence; teach us how to build better networks; and explore future possibilities. Jump in…


The end of career ladders?

Careers used to be about climbing the ‘ladder’- they were linear, predictable, straightforward and you knew what happened next. And yet when was the last time you used these types of phrases to describe your work or career? None of us expect a job for life anymore but careers for life are disappearing too, and according to a recent article by The Financial Times most of us can expect to have as many as 4 different types of career during our working life.

Careers today are characterised by change, uncertainty and ambiguity and feel altogether ‘squigglier’ than those of previous generations. The idea of a career ladder is no longer relevant or motivating as a guide for individual career ambitions, or indeed realistic as organisations become flatter and can no longer offer promotions, as the default way to demonstrate progression.

What is The Squiggly Career?

Everyone’s career is getting ‘squigglier.’ We are more able than ever before to move frequently and fluidly between different roles, industries, disciplines, and how we work is changing too. There are now 4.8m self-employed people in the UK (all time high) and in some industries freelancing is the expectation rather than the exception. And simultaneously we’re seeing the rise of the ‘boomerang’ employee. As the name implies, these are people who leave an organisation, perhaps to broaden their experience or experiment with a new career possibility, but who are happy to return to a previous employer at a later stage. The once taboo idea of ‘going back’ is now appreciated as people making choices to align themselves with organisations that reflect their values and where they feel confident about having a positive impact. At their best, squiggly careers give us the opportunity to design personalised careers characterised by fulfillment, opportunity and learning.

Self-awareness and lifelong learning are now a ‘must-do’

A one size fits all approach to career development is now redundant. Instead, we need a more personalized framework that embraces the different motivations and definitions of success we bring to work. In a ladder-like, command and control, environment we didn’t need to overly concern ourselves with personal development. Individuals were told what to do and where to go and there was little opportunity to deviate from the norm.

Today it is now imperative that individuals take ownership for their own career development. Self-awareness and lifelong learning are a ‘must do’ not a luxury if we want to make the most of everything squiggly careers have to offer. And to be clear this doesn’t devolve managers and organisations from the responsibility of development. The role of leaders has shifted from telling to supporting, guiding and coaching. And organisations need to adapt and focus on areas like internal career mobility to realise the potential of their people. Arguably it’s the organisations that prioritise the development of their people who will be the ones who gain an unfair competitive advantage by attracting and keeping (and re-attracting) the best talent across the market.

The career development gap

There’s no shortage of career development content out there but what appears to be lacking is useful and practical learning that sticks and changes behaviour over both the short and long term. Academic research, though often insightful, can feel hard to apply and self-help is full of  pithy, quotable ‘do what you love’ style of phrases which, in our experience, often leaves people feeling demotivated or overwhelmed. And too often development opportunities in organisations are made available to select groups rather than starting with an open, ‘opt-in’ democratic mindset.

And individuals often don’t demonstrate the accountability you might anticipate for their own development, expecting ‘others’ to do the hard work on their behalf. This is perhaps understandable as developing our self-awareness ‘muscle’ is not something that we have historically prioritised. And even when we acknowledge spending time on our own development matters we’re all too familiar with the things that get in the way: an ever-expanding to-do-list, technology that means we’re always on, no headspace to think. Spending time on self-reflection and asking questions including: ‘am I using my strengths to add value?’ ‘Do I live my values at work?’ ‘What future possibilities am I curious about exploring?’ is too often a job for another day.

Thriving vs. surviving in a squiggly career

For the first time in history work is now a significant part of our identity. We spend a lot of our time at work and we all want to feel that it is time well spent. We’ve worked with thousands of people and hundreds of organisations over the past 7 years and the vast majority recognise ‘squiggly careers’ are the new normal.

Together with individuals, teams and organisations we’ve tried and tested different tools and techniques to develop ‘sticky’ self-awareness in 5 areas: strengths (particularly super strengths), values (the things that motivate and drive you), confidence (and how to overcome gremlins that get in our way), building networks (people helping people) and future possibilities. This is, of course, not an exhaustive list but we have found it provides a strong foundation on which to build a successful squiggly career.

And we’ve observed first-hand that the people who spend more time thriving versus surviving in the world of work today are those that take our work and use it as the start of the process of integrating self-reflection and learning into their every day. It’s the individuals who adopt ongoing ownership for their career development, and the organisations that commit to support and enable this process, who are the ones that tell us they’re winning – personally and collectively.


Sarah Ellis

Sarah is the co-founder of Amazing If, a career development company with a mission to make work better for everyone. Their clients include the BBC, Vodafone, MoneySupermarket, COOK and eBay. Alongside her business partner, Helen Tupper, Sarah hosts the UK’s no. 1 careers podcast Squiggly Careers which has over 200 5* reviews and 300k downloads. Together they are the authors of The Squiggly Career (Penguin) which was selected as an FT business book of the month in January of this year.

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