In the age of the broken ‘career ladder’, here’s how to zigzag towards the job you want | André Spicer

Recently, I sat in a lecture hall with a couple of hundred final-year undergraduate students. Looking around, I thought about my own uncertainty at their age. When I was about to graduate, the future seemed unclear. I didn’t have a place on a company graduate programme like many of my classmates. Decades on, I realised that what seemed like obvious career ladders weren’t so simple.

The job market for today’s graduates seems good. The annual report by the Institute of Student Employers found that graduate recruitment is expected to increase by 5% in 2023-24. Companies continued to struggle to recruit in areas such as digital, engineering and finance. Despite this strong demand, each position was hotly contested – with an average of 86 applications for every opening.

Once today’s generation of graduates find a job, only some of them will find opportunities to advance. The Chartered Institution of Personnel and Development’s good work survey found that only 35% of people said their job offered good opportunities for career advancement.

There are a few reasons why people find it difficult to advance on the career ladder. A recent survey by McKinsey found that one of the biggest drivers of the unequal representation of women in top leadership positions is “broken rungs” further down the career ladder. For instance, it found that for every 100 men appointed in lower-level leadership positions, 87 women were appointed. This meant there was a smaller pool of potential female leaders who might move on to high-level leadership positions.

The second reason many people struggle is that career ladders are becoming smaller. As large organisations have slimmed down, so have the internal paths for promotion. Instead of offering a potential path from the shop floor to the boardroom, many of the largest corporations have outsourced operational activities and effectively closed off many internal career paths.

This means that careers have been replaced with jobs, and jobs have increasingly been replaced with tasks. As work gets outsourced to gig workers, there are few opportunities for developing new skills and stepping up.

The final issue is that increasing numbers of people just aren’t interested in climbing the ladder. The recent iteration of the world values survey found that millennials and generation Z placed less value on work than they used to. A decade ago, 41% of millennials thought work should come first. Today that number is 14%. Similarly, 43% of Britons said that it would be a good thing if less importance was placed on work. It seems that many of us no longer see ourselves defined by our work – rather, it is what happens outside work that is more important.

Aberystwyth University students in a lecture. Photograph: aberCPC/Alamy

Although career ladders continue to exist, navigating them is much trickier. In their study of career paths, Marion de Bruyne and Katleen de Stobbeleir identify a range of strategies people can use in negotiating increasingly complex career paths without clear ladders.

The first strategy they point towards is zigzagging. Instead of focusing on moving up to the next rung on the ladder, they point out that careers often involve lateral moves. Sometimes, the best way to get ahead is to move sideways. This can give you an opportunity to gain new experiences and skills as well as build your network. Career setbacks such as unsuccessfully applying for a promotion are often painful – but they can be an opportunity to learn, which helps in the long run. This is what a study of early-stage scientists found: those who narrowly missed out on a grant and then used what they learned to apply again tended to do better in the long run than those who narrowly won the grant.

If you can’t find the perfect job somewhere else, often you can try to create a pretty good job where you are. A second strategy careers researchers have identified is what they call “job crafting”. This entails reshaping your existing job to give you opportunities to develop and grow. Doing this might involve changing the types of tasks you do by taking on new projects. It might involve changing who you interact with in the workplace by proactively building new relationships at work. Finally, it can entail changing how you think about your role by seeing it in a different light.

Sometimes, people feel like they are stuck and can’t find the resources or opportunities they need at work to get ahead or craft their job in a meaningful way. One strategy people can use in these situations is joining or building communities within an industry. My colleague Ece Kaynak looked at how novices transitioned into a new occupation by joining coding boot camps. These boot camps turned an individual challenge of learning new skills into something more collective.

These occupational communities don’t need to be boot camps – they can be networks or even sector social movements. These can help to offer informal opportunities to share and develop new skills. They can also serve as a source of support as well as a way of sharing opportunities. Building these occupational communities can also provide a platform for a group of people to make collective change within an industry.

Making a change can seem like a daunting experience. One way to make it a little less scary is to run a series of what London Business School’s Herminia Ibarra calls career experiments. These are small-scale test runs of ideas about what you think the next step might be. For instance, if you are interested in taking on a leadership role, you could volunteer to lead a project group at work or find leadership opportunities outside work. Doing this will allow you to build the skills at a smaller scale and test out whether the move is right for you without having to take a large and risky career leap.

Like the students sitting in that lecture hall, many of us only see a small portion of the paths for career development life might offer. When we think about making our way, we tend to only focus on the obvious career ladders. These are important, but they are not the only way to make your way in the world of work. If you look a little more broadly, there are likely to be other ways forward.

The Guardian