Why Has Our Generation Moved Away From Long-Term Career Planning?

Artwork by Megan Smith

Over the last couple of years, I’ve come to accept myself as somewhat of a planner. I generally thrive on routine, I struggle to be spontaneous, and I like to be prepared for most situations I could find myself in—as evidenced by the abundance of crap in my handbag and my physical inability to “travel light”. But one area of life where my preparedness starts to falter happens to be in the tricky planning of life itself. I’ve always been driven by short-term goals, but when I was recently asked where I want to be in twenty years, my brain short-circuited and made me instantly dismissive of the question; quite frankly, trying to conjure an image of what my life will look like at the age of 42 feels like an artistic feat that even Michelangelo himself would find daunting.

My career goals have shifted into various shapes over the years: I wanted to generally “be famous” as a child, then I wanted an office job so I could “wear a power suit” after watching too many glossy romcoms in my early teens, and I eventually developed a love of performing that brought on fantasies of a career in acting. Since the pandemic started, I’ve been writing a lot more than I’ve been acting, which made me realise that I’d like to pursue writing as a career. But whilst I can certainly visualise writing as my day job for the next five years or so, I couldn’t possibly comment on how I would feel about writing professionally for the rest of my working days, as I simply cannot envisage which path life will take me down as I get older.

I wanted to know if I was alone in these feelings, so I carried out the most scientific study I could: I posted a few polls on my Instagram stories. The most interesting takeaways from these polls were that only 54% of people responded “yes” when asked if they had a long-term career goal, and an even smaller 31% of people said that they could see themselves sticking with one career until they retire. Considering that the majority of my followers are of a similar age to me, it was plain to see that there is a trend emerging when it comes to our attitudes towards job prospects. But what has caused us to stray from the long-term approach to career planning that our parents and grandparents were indoctrinated into?

A friend of mine responded by suggesting that we are a part of what can be neatly summarised as the “portfolio generation”, a reference to the number of popular career paths—particularly those within creative industries—which require an individual to build up a collection of work experience from several jobs before a more long-term position is anywhere close to being on the cards. This, of course, raises the conundrum which has plagued many a weary young job-hunter: how are we supposed to gain experience when it so often appears that the experience itself also requires experience? In my case, this certainly tracks; I’ve come across several voluntary writing jobs recently which insist that you need 2-3 years’ experience under your belt to even be considered for one of these unpaid positions. The number of demands from job postings may be high, but the number of applicants is higher, making it feel even more urgent that we take any work opportunities that come our way. For many of us, what older generations may view as “flitting between jobs” is, in reality, an evolved survival tactic—we’ve learned the importance of a well-rounded CV, so we are looking for as many opportunities as possible to add to the work experience mosaic we then get to display proudly on our LinkedIn profiles.

Another element to consider when thinking about the Millennial/Gen Z affinity for regular career switch-ups is the indisputable fact that there are just so many jobs that exist today that would have been unheard of twenty, ten, or even five years ago, thanks to constant developments in technology, media, and social media. We know that these advancements and cultural shifts aren’t going to come to a halt anytime soon, so how are we possibly supposed to say that we are happy to stick with one job for the rest of our working lives when our potential dream position may not have even been created yet? The competition for jobs feels fiercer than ever for young people, particularly after the pandemic has resulted in so many businesses shutting down, so the regular creation of new, niche positions can only be a good thing—even if these positions are nothing more than a brief pitstop on a person’s ever-changing career path.

It’s also understandable that today’s workforce is more likely to feel the itch to change jobs than those who came before us when you see the sheer amount of aspirational content we are bombarded with on social media. We no longer live in a time where our only feelings of career envy arise when watching films and tv shows that we know are merely an unimaginable fantasy for us regular folk; just a brief scroll through Instagram, Twitter or TikTok will show you everyday people achieving their real-life career goals. Whilst it is lovely to have platforms for people to celebrate their successes and to inspire others to do the same, you can hardly blame people for thinking that they may be in the wrong job when they are regularly seeing similarly-aged strangers on the internet getting far further than they are in a different line of work.

This being said, what surprised me upon seeing the results of my nosy Insta polls was that when asked whether they had a long-term vision for their life in general—such as a particular location they wanted to live in or plans to start a family— 77% of people responded that they did. This goes to show that whilst a lot of us may be moving through our working lives with an air of spontaneity and flexibility, the concept of a dream home/marriage/dog/city/*insert personal goal here* hasn’t quite been relegated to the history books just yet, and it is perfectly common for life goals to coexist semi-peacefully alongside career uncertainty. And even though gender equality seems to be generally improving in the workplace, family planning is still a major consideration for many women when thinking about their potential career trajectories, adding an extra unwanted set of questions for people to ponder over.

I feel confident in saying that the generational shift in how we may plan out—or rather, may not plan out—our careers isn’t a result of supposed youthful impulse and impatience, but rather a natural reaction to changes in our cultural landscape. It’s not only acceptable to undergo several career evolutions in a lifetime these days—it’s almost expected. And there is no reason to believe that this is a bad thing; not feeling tied down to one particular job gives people time to search for a career they truly enjoy, to look for work opportunities to develop previously unexplored skills, or to simply find the most bearable way to pay the bills whilst maintaining a pleasant work/life balance. We don’t live in the same world that our parents did when they started working, so why should we be planning our careers in the same way? Personally, whilst the vast array of options for what I could be doing with my future may feel overwhelming at times, I take comfort in the knowledge that wherever I end up, I don’t have to be there for the long haul.

Article by Olivia Cox