The evolution of career management: from “job for life” to “career for me”

In the past, workers were more than willing to trade autonomy for job stability. Staying with one company for life and building skills while progressing through the ranks was the dream – capped off with the proverbial gold watch after 50 years of loyal service. Then came the economic uncertainties of the 1980s, followed by three decades of corporate downsizing and salary/ benefits erosion. Employees felt a rising sense of expendability and, not surprisingly, loyalty levels declined.


Today, the career mindset for those with in-demand job skills has taken a 180-degree turn from the “job for life” days. The focus is on a “career for me.” Talented individuals still aspire to work for strong employer brands, as previous generations did, but look for employment security within themselves, not the organisation.


“In the Human Age, a career is viewed as an on-going journey to develop new capabilities and experiences regardless of company affiliation,” explains ManpowerGroup South Africa’s managing director, Lyndy van den Barselaar; explaining that the individual contributes to the company but measures career success in ways that are decoupled from organisational outcomes.


It’s critical for organisations to recognise the new reality of “career for me” and make the shift – strategically and operationally – from being job providers to being career enablers. “This commitment has to go beyond mission statements and hiring promises. To attract and retain the talent they need to succeed, companies must abandon the hierarchical and often paternalistic people management structures of the past. They need to redefine their relationship with employees as a mutually beneficial partnership and build a culture that encourages personal and professional growth,” says van den Barselaar.


Below, van den Barselaar looks at some of the key differentiators between career management in the human age versus that of previous generations:


–       Yesterday, the organisation had control when it came to the individual’s career; today, the individual controls his or her own career.

–       Yesterday, your CV was the key evaluation tool for new hires; today, evaluating potential and organisational fit are key evaluation tools for new hires. “Aptitude and skills assessments have become the new CV,” explains van den Barselaar.

–       Yesterday, employees climbed career ladders; today, employees advance on a career framework, with challenging projects and promotions given to those who demonstrate faster time to value.

–       Yesterday, effort was measured by long hours and presenteeism was of the highest value; today, effort is measured by outcomes and results, usually independent of time spent.

–       Yesterday, the focus of career development was driven by organisational needs; today, the focus is on the intersection of individual needs and goals with the needs of the organisation.

–       Yesterday, the core competency was in the mastery of one single skill or task; today, the ability to learn and develop new capabilities is of utmost importance to remain employable.

–       Yesterday, experience and reliability were most prized by employers; today, the ability to be agile and contribute regardless of age and experience is most prized.

–       Yesterday, progress was measured by gains in responsibilities, salary and titles; today, employees set their own agendas and collaborate with their employer to develop meaningful metrics.

–       Yesterday, increasing skill specialisation, narrowing of focus and value to the company were rewarded and encouraged; today, employers encourage factors such as continuous gains in breadth and depth of skills, flexibility and agility, and relevance to the market.


“Yesterday’s leaders were focused on retaining employees no matter what; focused on one-size-fits-all approaches like periodic performance evaluations; and saw their ability to manage as their most critical skill,” explains van den Barselaar. “Today, collaboration is the most critical leadership skill for managers. Their role is to encourage growth and coach their employees; and they approach reports through ongoing, personal career discussions, looking at proactive guidance to encourage systemic growth.”


In conclusion, van den Barselaar notes that in order to attract and engage the best and brightest talent, organisations must create a culture that encourages individual career development. “While meaningful work connects employees to an organisation, empowering them to manage their own future fosters deep engagement.”