The modern career path: Squiggly is the new straight

Jobs for life? History. Career ladders? A bit wobbly these days. In this brave new world, careers are mixed and varied. Time to embrace a less linear life and make it work for you.

By Lysanne Currie,

Once upon a time, if you decided to work in a bank, you’d work in a bank for decades and pick up your carriage clock at the end of it. Job, literally, done. But times change. According to a report by Scottish Widows, just a third of people aged 70 or older changed careers at some stage in their working life, compared with two-thirds of millennials who have either crab-walked into another career or are seriously thinking about it. Fewer than 30% of people surveyed said they were worried about making such a change; in fact, around nine out of 10 are now seeking ‘flexible work’.

Why should this be? Obviously, a zero-hours culture plays a part, plus the fact that we’re now expected to work until we’re 70, and possibly beyond. Who wants a job for life when those are the stakes? It’s also predicted that, due to the great leaps forward that have been made in tech, a third of the jobs that today’s schoolchildren will go into don’t actually exist yet. And with many of us predicted to have, on average, four different types of career in our lives (some of them remote), it’s clear that today’s workers need to be adaptable.

Enter ‘squiggly careers’ – a term coined by Helen Tupper and Sarah Ellis of Amazing If, a coaching and consultancy business aimed at “making work better for everyone”. Together, they run the extremely useful Squiggly Careers podcast, a weekly series aiming to help its 200,000 listeners design a career on their own terms via insider tips and tools they’ve picked up along the way.

Also known as ‘portfolio careers’, squiggly careers are those in which you have a mix of employments or several career threads, moving frequently between roles, industries and locations. High-profile squigglers include the likes of Dr Vanessa Ogden, a former banker turned headteacher at Tower Hamlets’ Mulberry School for Girls, a turned-around school described as “phenomenal” by Michelle Obama during her visit.

“I like the idea of people having squiggly careers,” says Ellis, who previously worked in marketing for the likes of Sainsbury’s, Barclays and Boots. “I’m much less worried these days about the next job and the job after that… it’s less about going down the traditional career path and more about exploring what you enjoy and seeing where that takes you.” However, a less linear approach to work can take some getting used to. Here are five things to work on to help you live a life less, well, straight:

1 Discover and define your values – and then live them

“This is about doing things that make you happy and that you believe in,” says Ellis. “Don’t make choices based on what your boss, friends or family think you should do.”

2 Overcome your confidence gremlins

“Everybody has them, but they’re just assumptions that have become reality in our heads,” says Ellis. “People who seem externally confident are just being seen at their best. But even the most senior CEO or people running massive billion-dollar companies have confidence gremlins. They’ve just been self-aware enough to take steps to deal with them.”

3 Build better support networks

“Whether you’re introverted or extroverted, building relationships is really important because you take relationships with you from role to role, and from company to company,” Ellis explains. “Whether you lose your team or you’re working with other people, you never know when you’re going to come across people again.”

4 Play to your strengths

“I’m quite a big believer in making your own luck, so put intentional effort into things that really matter to you, and make your own choices,” Ellis advises.

5 Explore your possibilities

Wondering about your next move puts you in control and gets rid of any sense of being overwhelmed. “Thinking about the possibilities means you can start to think of a consistent thread for your career,” Ellis explains.

Tupper and Ellis advise against trying to do all five things simultaneously. “Pick the one that feels most important to you and try to make some progress on that,” says Ellis. “We’re not saying everything will transform overnight,” she continues. “But we just hope to give people a bit of a kick-start.”

The Squiggly Career by Helen Tupper and Sarah Ellis is published by Penguin (£14.99).


A version of this article was originally published in Influence magazine, Q1 2020.

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