The Traditional Career Path Model is Dead

career advancement Oct 29, 2023
picture of a fork in the road with an arrow pointing left saying

The traditional career path doesn’t have much difference between industries; it’s linear, step-like, with 4 or 5 levels on the path to the top.

These career paths also involve staying really close to the same domain, and often inside the same industry or even the same company. This is where the idea of a career ladder comes from.

Also? The traditional career ladder is super unrealistic in today’s job market.

Sure, a few people might have careers that progress through a single domain and industry for decades, the vast majority of career paths look a lot messier.

In this post, I’m debunking the traditional career path model, exploring 5 common career myths that you’ll encounter.

I’ve also included a bit of my own career path to give you a real account of how non-linear and fluid a career path can be.

What is the Traditional Career Path Model?

The traditional career path follows about 5, linear levels.

  • Entry-level roles – The first couple years of your career. (No, these shouldn’t require 5 years of experience.)
  • Mid-level roles – You’ll have them for some time. You may begin some small team management at this level.
  • Senior-level roles – You may manage a team or become a go-to technical expert.
  • Senior management – You’re almost certainly managing a team, maybe as a senior director or a VP. A lot of people feel they get caught at this level.
  • Executive – This refers to Senior VP, Executive VP, and C-suite roles like CEO, COO, etc.

The idea here is that you move linearly up the food chain. And if you want to switch domains? You should expect to be pushed back, maybe all the way to entry level for bigger shifts in domain or industry.

But is this really true? I’ll give you a hint – nope.

5 Career Path Myths – Debunked

These are some of the most common myths associated with the traditional career path model, along with a more realistic approach to these sectors:

Myth # 1 – Linear progression

The traditional career path model views progression as linear, moving up the ladder one rung at a time.

A more realistic model, however, looks a lot more like rock climbing. More often, professionals make lateral career moves, exploring different domains, roles, and even entire industries.

In order to move at an upwards trajectory, these lateral moves are necessary. Like a rock climbing wall, you must move left to right, sometimes even back a step in order to reach the summit.

You’ll often see lateral moves even in the executive positions. CFOs and CEOs will move into completely different industries as a result of their experience and as a strategic way to continue growing their career laterally.

Most roles will have a limit. There is a ceiling, and if you want to surpass it, you may need to change paths completely.

Myth # 2 – Job security

There has been a long-standing idea that company loyalty is paramount. The traditional career path model promotes this and is built on progression through a single company.

This model, however, is outdated at best and harmful at worst.

Case in point: I’ve consulted with dozens of people in the last 18 months who truly believed they would retire at their company. Except the company got bought out, and the new owners had other plans - which led to a layoff just a few years before they hoped to retire.

A lifetime within a single company, moving through the ranks is far from the norm. Professionals are now forced to adapt to and seek new roles and opportunities. And their efforts are often rewarded with higher-ranking positions.

Myth #3 – Skill specialization

In the past, professionals often specialized in one area, developing a mastery of these skills without branching out to new areas.

And while specialization can definitely be valuable, it tends to be limiting, especially when reaching for upper management roles.

In order to be an effective leader, you need a diverse set of skills to lead across domains. As technology evolves over time, the workplace must evolve with it.

And employees that have what Liam Neeson would call “a very particular set of skills” - skills built for adaptation and innovation - are an ideal fit for leadership roles. They become the most highly sought-after professionals even if they aren’t the most brilliant technically.

Myth # 4 – Limited growth opportunities

A traditional career path model overlooks several opportunities for self-motivated career advancement, instead only focusing on advancement in a specific company.

But today, we can forge our own career paths through entrepreneurship, consulting, freelancing, and more. These paths not only provide us with more autonomy over our careers, but it also removes hierarchical limits on your possible career growth. A savvy professional can pursue more than one of these new paths at once, or switch between them.

Myth # 5 – One-size-fits-all

One of the biggest steps in debunking the traditional career path model is understanding that comparison proves futile.

A career path will look different for each individual based on circumstances, talents, aspirations, and more. Everyone defines success differently and a career path should be individualized rather than standardized.

When we begin trying to keep up with the Joneses with our careers instead of pursuing our own goals, we can end up seriously concerned about our trajectory. By opting out of the comparison game, you can focus on your personal career path, not on limiting yourself by any model that has come before.

Debunking the Traditional Career Path Model: My Experience

My personal career path definitely contradicts the traditional career path model. I did several lateral moves along my way, exploring different industries and domains to diversify my skills.

My career started fairly linearly. I began in entry-level roles for a few years as a consultant, programmer, and business analyst. I moved my way up to mid-level roles, then eventually senior roles.

Then, boom! One of my company moves led me to my first role as a product manager – a lateral move that didn’t force me down the ranks. The product discipline was closely related to my prior work, and I was able to leverage a ton of skills from several prior roles, along with my education.

Even though this wasn’t a people management role like my prior experience, and it was in a different industry, I wasn’t forced back to a mid or entry-level role.

Thank you, transferable skills!

I did this again, twice, without taking a step back.

My career path, however, is just that – mine. Everyone’s career advancement will look different. But one thing is for certain – the traditional model didn’t work for me and doesn’t work for most of my clients.

Final Thoughts from the No BS Career Coach: Debunking the Traditional Career Path Model

The traditional career path model may have been an accurate representation for the majority of professionals 50 years ago. But as time goes on, it’s only getting more and more outdated - especially for knowledge workers. Heck, most of the high-demand technical jobs out there right now didn’t exist 10 years ago!

Modern career paths are so much more individual to the person, to their goals, and their chosen paths.

As you’re looking to advance your career, I encourage you to seek alternative routes when climbing the ever-present “ladder.” Through innovative thought and navigation through the professional world, your opportunities for success will suddenly become as you’ve always wanted – endless.

If you’re interested in working with a coach to sort out the best career path for you, you may be a great candidate for one of my coaching programs. To learn more, book an intro call today.