3: Career ladders have fallen; think jungle gyms

Mar 2nd, 2011 | By | Category: News

onkey bars

Careers no longer happen in straight up-and-down ladders. Now there are many more connections and directions. © Ken Abraham. iStockphoto

Michigan State University
School of Journalism

(In this Jobspage series, I describe seven emerging job trends and strategies for using them to your advantage. This is Part 3.)

The idea of linear careers became so widespread that people literally talked about climbing the ladder or reaching the next rung. There is even a company and Website, TheLadders, that specializes in jobs paying more than $100,00 a year.

But even the people at the Ladders know that traditional career ladders have fallen.

Now, the path to success is not always vertical and it is rarely in a straight line. It is more like jumping from one floating log in a stream to another as new companies pop up, go under and are always on the move.

Of course, the technological disruptions that have caused this throughout American industries have also disrupted a lot of carefully laid career plans. Some people are angry, and who can blame them? This disruption gave rise to books like Who Moved My Cheese?
which talks about the fact that the rewards people had been working toward were moved.

So, what do we do after the ladders fall down?

Actually, there’s plenty.

In fact, with the right strategies, workers can find that they have more opportunities than they had before.

One phenomenon of the ladder job market was that, the higher you climbed, the fewer opportunities you had. They paid more or carried more prestige, but jumping into another field meant jumping off the ladder.

The ladders did not fall down because a lot of workers became disenchanted with them. Most people seemed to accept career ladders. The ladders started shaking when companies, trying to deal with rapid changes in business and technology, laid people off, bought them out or just went out of business. In some cases, new companies rose out of the old ones or were created from scratch. New companies did not care that much about how many rungs were on a person’s resume.

So, the new opportunities meant a greater emphasis on skills, adaptability and risk taking, rather than focused experience.

In the future, we will see a lot more people making horizontal moves, as you might move across a jungle gym, and these will be a new kind of success as people show they can move across platforms and industries. There can still be upward mobility in wages and responsibilities. Some risk-takers have gotten rich that way. But climbing a fixed ladder no longer seems like the safest way to assure a long career.


  • Cover your bets by keeping your eye on more than one industry. That way, you’ll cover your bets and perhaps create something out of the two of them. Journalists used to get cross-examined if they worked in both print and television. Now they are sought. If one industry or a part of one falters and you have been studying its successor industry or a stronger competitor, you will have a jump on others.
  • Develop a horizontal network, rather than a vertical one. Have colleagues in other industries. They may be working on different projects or products, but if there is a match for your skill set, you may find a new home there.
  • Vary your training. A second major, a new degree or a minor i a different field make more sense now than ever.
  • When you learn new skills, beware of skills that are too narrow and specific. A proprietary software may help you with the company you are in, but if there is nothing in it that applies to other industries, your reach is limited.
  • Listen to anyone who has an opportunity. Avoid talk about other industries being “the dark side.” There are really very few.

7 job trends in this JobsPage series

  1. 40/40 is over. Forty years with the same employer will be highly unusual and the 40-hour workweek with set daily hours will be increasingly rare.
  2. The job market has a new topography.Number 7 marking a lane on a running trackYou need to have a brand.
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One Comment to “3: Career ladders have fallen; think jungle gyms”

  1. […] number of career paths and players available to you has grown — and grown more […]

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