Defining a Career

To say careers today look different than careers in generations past would be a major understatement. A Gallup (2016) report revealed that 21% of millennials have changed jobs within the past year; three times the highest figure in any other generation. According to the same report, only half of the millennial generation strongly agreed that they would be working at the same job a year from then, and around 60% said they would be willing to leave if a new opportunity arose elsewhere.

This isn’t to say all members of the millennial generation share the same sentiment, or that all members of every other generation are perfectly content in their current job, but one thing is certain: The word “career” doesn’t mean the same thing today as it did in the past. That’s why it hit home for so many of our Only What Matters community members when Quintin asked, “What does a career mean to you?”

“Some view careers simply as a means to financial stability,” Quintin wrote, “while others focus on their careers being personal achievements to themselves and society.”

What was most fascinating about the responses that followed was that while there wasn’t a clear consensus, but there was clear contentment.

Christine, Only What Matters member and UX designer, wrote that for her “work is a way to feel personally fulfilled and to grow, and contribute in a positive way.” She added that she doesn’t subscribe to the traditional “corporate ladder” view of a career.1

Another member, Christopher (not to be confused with the author of this blog post), spoke to the notion of climbing the corporate ladder, “Sounds exhausting.” On Quintin’s post, he wrote about his recent departure from his former job,

I wanted my career to be something I believed in, and gave myself for twenty years to it, but in the end they didn’t value my contributions. In retrospect, I would have skipped the American Dream entirely, pursued something that was personally important to me, and been a minimalist from the start. I just got sidetracked by all the glitter in front of me and all the pushing from behind that I didn’t know how to resist.

Indeed there is a positive feedback loop buried within the traditional definition of a career that can be incredibly hard to break. By working hard, one can earn a promotion, which encourages hard work, which leads to another promotion, and so on. This loop not only provides positive feedback for past labor, but also incentive to continue with the company, as more promotions can be expected in the future. It is no wonder it is a difficult, if not frightening, loop for many to break out of. The loop (id est ladder) is ideal for someone who has found their calling and who doesn’t mind their passion becoming their primary source of income. But what about for everyone else?

Community member Justin puts his focus into the “life” of the work-life balance, writing, “Work is ideally somewhere I benefit others in a meaningful way and make a living doing so. Failing that, it is a way for me to make enough to maintain a relative level of comfort while pursuing what I find meaningful.” He continues, “The point at which I realized a job is just a job and not my ‘passion’ or ‘calling’ was liberating.”

A study published by the Pew Research Center (2016) shows Justin is not alone. Three-in-ten Americans responded saying their current job was just a tool used to pay the bills. This can be hard for some people to find contentment in, as so often we find our identity in the work we do. Often, the first question we’re asked when we meet someone new is, “What do you do?” Justin concludes, “Not binding how I derive meaning from life to how I make a living allows a certain degree of flexibility and takes the pressure off when job searching.”

We would love to know what you think about the word “career.” Discuss this post below or in the Only What Matters member community.

  1. While cliché, it’s worth noting here that “career” has two definitions in the Merriam-Webster dictionary specifically pertaining to one’s work. One, “A profession for which one trains and which is undertaken as a permanent calling.” The other, the corporate ladder: “A field for or pursuit of consecutive progressive achievement especially in public, professional, or business life.” ↩︎