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Non-linear Career Paths in The 2020s

EZRA
May 25 2021 | Insights

Ezra discusses the differences in opportunity, progression and appetite between linear and non-linear career paths.


Famously, a career path is often portrayed as a straight line. It’s what our parents talked about. First, we go to school, get a degree, get a job, and then slowly work our way up the ladder. It’s a straightforward path, but it provides a sense of direction and in some cases, comfort.  

Unfortunately, this is only a rough idea of what we expect to happen. In reality, only around 21% of college graduates use most of their education in their work or career. That leaves a massive 79% of college graduates who land jobs that have nothing to do with what they’ve studied. This approach can be demotivating for some, but if you’re willing to accept a non-linear career path, it can open up unique opportunities in life. 

What is a career path? 

At its most basic level, a career path is a series of positions that you expect to hold as you advance in your chosen field. For example, a worker may start as an intern, then hold a junior development position, then advance to a senior position before being made a team or project leader. Theoretically the path ascends the corporate mountain until it reaches the summit: the CEO position.  

Throughout this path, you’ll typically learn new skills to fit into your role, then move onto the next position. And it doesn’t mean you have to do it all for one organization.  For instance, your role as a senior developer could  to join another company in the same role. 

What is a “traditional” linear career? 

A traditional linear career usually refers to locking in a position or occupation. For example, a conventional career for a healthcare specialist may start in college, advance to medical school, then lead to a role as a doctor or surgeon. The skills aren’t very transferable, but lateral movements such as switching to a different hospital can happen. 

These are known as traditional careers since, in the past, you were expected to stick with a role for most of your life. But that was the past. With the monumental shifts in workplaces today, the idea of a linear career is becoming less common. 

The decline of the linear path 

Linear careers involve a considerable time investment, and they lock you into a single career path. These days, people can take advantage of more opportunities, and they’re less likely to stay loyal to a company. In addition, people are now more willing to learn new skills that make them a better fit for different positions. 

Add to that a job market that is becoming more and more unpredictable. Technology is not only changing the way we work but offers us countless ways to learn new skills. In this unprecedented environment, we need to start looking at ways to make ourselves stand out while maintaining job security. The old saying “when you close a door, you open a window” applies to employment too. As more and more job roles are replaced with automated alternatives, it creates new opportunities and helps us to adapt to new conditions. 

Lastly, the idea of starting up your own business right out of school is becoming increasingly popular. In the past, starting up a company was complex, costly, and required a lot of business knowledge that could only be learned in a formal academic setting. These days, it’s easy to transfer your skills to a self-employed venture and essentially avoid having to spend the rest of your life working for an employer. With the gig economy growing and freelance opportunities becoming more and more common, it’s possible to avoid a linear career path altogether. 

Shifting direction. A look at non-linear career paths 

OK, so your parents’ career path is no longer the only option…but what exactly is a non-linear career path? 

Career paths are becoming less like ladders and more like large nets. We can still climb up the net, but we can also move sideways, diagonally, and even use it for safety. Nets are flexible, they can protect us, and we can choose how we move. For example, someone may finish high school and start a business straight away. It might not be the most profitable company, but if they have assistance, even teenagers can get started with their own business. If they lack important skills, they can enter college at a later age, finish a degree, and then return to chasing their entrepreneurial goals.  

Benefits and challenges 

The flexibility a non-linear career path offers is balanced by its challenges. 

One of the benefits of a non-linear career is financial safety since you’re not relying on a single employer or source of income. In addition, a non-linear career path allows you to hold as many jobs as you want; it even allows you to change jobs or go back to school. 

But a word of caution - non-linear career paths can be difficult for people that don’t have a strong sense of self-discipline. It can be easy to lose your way, to procrastinate, and this environment can make it more challenging to identify where to set your next goals. 

Where will your career path take you?  

Good coaching can be a fantastic way to help someone embark on a non-linear career journey and make the most of their opportunities within an organization. While a linear path can provide people comfort knowing that there are fewer choices to make, a coach can help you unlock a non-linear career path by helping you see things differently. 

With coaching support, you could harness the power of a non-linear career path that truly allows you to follow your passions while maintaining a much higher sense of job safety and financial security. 

This continued evolution from linear to non-linear career paths is one reason why EZRA has redesigned leadership coaching for the modern age. We want to help transform people and organizations through affordable, scalable and high-impact solutions with equitable access through our world-class coaching app. Discover how digital coaching can make a big difference to your employee’s potential and your organization’s productivity.

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