Planning your ‘career curve’

November 10, 2008, 7:05 PM UTC

Author and workplace expert Tamara Erickson — someone many of you longtime Gig readers will remember from posts such as “Job-hopping Gen Yers aren’t disloyal. They’re smart,” and “Money v. meaningful work, the battle continues” — has a new book out, and since she’s been such a source of good advice, we thought we’d give you a sneak peek. 

Plugged In: The Generation Y Guide to Thriving at Work focuses on Yers’ advantages — our fresh perspective, motivation, and willingness to take risks — and offers some guidance to help Yers fully connect to their colleagues and engage in the changing work world. In the following excerpt, Tammy introduces the “career curve” framework, one she says can help Yers identify the best job and career path to meet their work and life needs. 

What shape will your career take? The line of your career is not an even progression. The amount of time, the intensity of your involvement with the work, the pulls of family, and many other concerns all influence the shape at any given moment of that path — what I call the career curve.

The career curve framework guides you in thinking about the practical reality of what will work for you. How much money do you consider enough (or need so that you can pay off the debt that you are carrying from school loans)? How much time would you like to devote to work? What role would you like it to play in the mosaic of your life’s other activities?

Older adults have tended to think about one career curve. It used to be that the progression of a career meant a steady rise at one workplace through the years, and then a sharp and abrupt end — rather like falling off a cliff — when workers retired. That pattern is being replaced, by and large, by more of a bell curve: entry-level, full involvement and advancement, and then a winding down or deceleration phase as workers transition out of work. Gen Y’s, however, should be thinking of multiple curves. Quite likely, you will have ups, downs, and do-overs. For you, the career curve framework might better be called career carillon, because the line of your career is likely to resemble a series of bell curves.

As you think about different options for your career curve(s), consider these issues:

  • Time: What other priorities do you have for your life? How much time would you like to devote to work? On the surface, this question is probably the most straightforward of all the considerations, although it’s also one of the most dependent on other choices you make. To a large extent, the amount of time you choose to devote to various activities, including work, will end up depending on how much you enjoy each one relative to the others. Nonetheless, it’s important to consider that, realistically, some careers are far more time-consuming than others.
  • Rhythm: Lots of people say they’d like more flexibility in their work arrangements, but what would that really mean for you? How much spontaneity or predictability do you need to accomplish the other priorities in your life? Do you anticipate having other activities that are highly regular (for example, training for an athletic event that could be conducted at the same time every day), or are your other priorities more likely to be spontaneous (for example, going on an impromptu trip)? Would working four long days every week — the same four days — be more appealing to you, or would you rather work in episodic bursts? Various career choices allow very different rhythms.
  • Economic reality: Get out your pencil or spreadsheet. It’s time to set some approximate financial goals. How much money do you need at this stage of your life? What standard of living will be comfortable for you? This is not a book about financial planning — there are plenty of those — but I encourage you to do some now. Be sure to take into account not only living expenses but also money required to pay off any student loans and to save for dreams you may have for the future. Consider the amount of help that you can realistically expect from your parents and family. Having a rough sense of your economic requirements will shape the choices that make sense.
  • Challenge: Consider the extent to which you do want (or don’t want) to take on difficult or challenging roles at this point, including the level of commitment you would be willing to make to learn new skill and capabilities. How new and how difficult do you want your future work to be?
  • Responsibility: Responsibility is a measure of the interdependence of your work with that of others. How willing are you to take on roles, including managerial tasks, that directly affect others? Are you comfortable having others depend on you? Are you willing to have people look to you for leadership or direction?

These questions help you shape the tangible reality of the work you prefer. Time and money may not be all that counts, but they are an important reality to factor in as you search for your passion.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Press.  Adapted from Plugged In: The Generation Y Guide to Thriving at Work by Tamara Erickson.  Copyright 2008 Tamara J. Erickson.  All rights reserved.