The new normal: embracing a ‘squiggly career’

The new normal: embracing a ‘squiggly career’

November 11, 2022

Once upon a time, spending decades in the same role at the same company was considered ‘the done thing’. Our grandparents would find a job and stick with it all the way through to retirement, climbing the ladder from entry to senior level. Joining a company was as binding as a marriage contract, and employees were expected to be as loyal to their company as to their husband or wife. But nowadays, the prospect of a job for life is about as alien and unimaginable as it gets.

Ask a millennial or Gen-Zer if they plan on staying put in one role for the rest of their working lives and they’ll most likely laugh you out the door. There’s a sea change taking place amongst the workforce as they refuse to be typecast or put into one single box with little to no room for manoeuvre. In a world defined by constant change, disruption, anxiety and innovation, workers are turning their backs on the concept of a linear career trajectory that puts their personal wants and needs on the backburner. The workforce of today is yearning for a career path shaped uniquely by and for themselves. If employers want to keep their businesses operating competitively, they need to be attracting talent by accepting an undeniable reality: a ‘squiggly career’ is becoming the norm.

What makes a career ‘squiggly’?

The term ‘squiggly career’ was originally coined by Helen Tubber and Sarah Ellis in their best-selling book exploring the demise of the linear career trajectory. However, a ‘squiggly career’ does not simply mean flitting from job to job and frequently transitioning from one industry to another. More than anything, having a ‘squiggly career’ is a mental state: it’s moving past the traditional view that success is defined as climbing seamlessly up the corporate ladder, opting instead to look at your career path as something fluid, that should be determined by your instinct for growth and learning, wherever that may take you.

Embracing the squiggles

Pursuing opportunities based on your own sense of personal fulfilment would have once earned you the rather derogatory title of ‘job hopper’, but nowadays it’s something that we should be embracing and celebrating. ‘Progression’ is no longer synonymous with promotions and pay rises; it’s an inward journey towards personal development.

Rather than moving upwards in a company, you may want to move sideways, dipping your toe into different roles and functions. We’re witnessing the rise of the multidisciplinary team, where people are choosing to work as a cross-functional pool of resources. When you’re working in an agile squad, you’re broadening your skillset and not limiting yourself to one single role.

The point is, the term ‘career’ is itself becoming increasingly difficult to define in any kind of concrete way. The one-size-fits-all definition of a career would’ve served well thirty years ago, but now? There is no longer a set formula that people have to follow. According to research by Zippia, the average person changes jobs 12 times over the span of their working life, and most people spend less than five years at a company. Due to technological developments, the flexibility of our working life has evolved beyond recognition. There are currently around 4.8 million self-employed people in the UK today, an all time high. Rather than living for work, today’s workforce is making work a part of their lives that works for them. Done right and embraced to its full, a ‘squiggly career’ has the potential to be limitlessly liberating.

Adapting as an employer

As today’s workforce embraces the ‘squiggly career’, hiring managers need to adapt to this changing landscape. Ultimately, the power is in the candidate’s hands, and in order to attract top talent, businesses need to be prepared to make changes to accommodate the shifting motivations and desires of the workforce.

Employees with a ‘squiggly career’ want to work for a values-led company that aids and supports their learning and development, offering flexibility and a degree of freedom. Dangling a promotion in front of your employees is no longer enough to keep them at your company; in today’s climate, there’s bound to be competitors out there that would lure them away with just as enticing an offer. To build a loyal network of employees, managers need to be leaders in the true sense of the word, genuinely investing in the training and support of those working for them. The average candidate in today’s market is not fickle, but also won’t likely put up with a career that doesn’t provide them with the things that matter most to them, such as the ability to show their strengths, build their skillset and stick by their values. The more organisations enable their workforce in pursuing a fulfilling ‘squiggly career’, the greater the payoff for both the individual and the company.


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