21st-Century Careers

What career progression looks like today

It’s a jungle gym out there.

Career coaches, hiring managers and pundits agree that today’s careers are less likely to be linear and more waves of continuous learning and re-invention. What does that mean?

The career scenarios we are familiar with looked more like a ladder: You started in an entry-level job and progressed up the ranks—more often than not at the same company. Or in the same field. You developed a specific set of skills that were honed throughout years of service.

But that’s not what’s happening so much today. Career progression may be easier to visualize as a jungle gym—at least that’s how Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg describes it.

In her book about women in the workplace, Lean In—an Amazon.com best-seller the first day it hit the shelves—Sheryl suggests that the metaphor of a jungle gym is much more helpful and accurate than a career ladder to describe today’s career progression:

  • Moving up isn’t the only means of developing a successful career
  • There’s no requirement to stay in one field
  • You should venture down different paths to explore various opportunities—all the while bringing your prior experience with you

These new avenues to success are what we did as kids: We climbed the jungle gym, taking various routes, solving problems along the way, hanging out in some spots and then moving on to others.

So why is it a jungle gym rather than the iconic “corporate ladder”? Let’s take a look.

The Rise of the Hybrid Skill Set

We see marketers wanting to add analytical skills, engineers seeking leadership training, people from a wide array of industries needing project management expertise. It’s easier to succeed when we know different facets of the business we’re in and have a range of skills to draw on.

You can start by understanding your organization’s overall goals and the various units that support the mission.

Pattie Sellers, assistant managing editor at Fortune magazine, is credited with originally articulating the jungle gym metaphor used by Sheryl and others. She describes the importance of having peripheral vision enabling us to see career opportunities that come along and, in jungle gym fashion, be ready to "swing to them."

Josh Bersin, an industry analyst covering global training and talent management, sees that the future of work lies in a hybrid mix of skills, and that reskilling and retraining is our best armor in a changing workplace.

“We need to overcome the fear of reinventing ourselves,” writes Josh, “and embrace a culture of lifelong learning.”

In his article “Catch the Wave: the 21st Century Career,” Josh advises that one way to think about careers today is as a series of waves and to think of yourself as a surfer. We catch a wave and ride it until it crests, and then we paddle out to catch the next one. In each new wave, we gain new skills and new experiences, retraining and educating ourselves along the way.



UX Design Instructor Minakshi Mukherjee

Learning is a lifelong process. You have to start with the basics and then keep an open mind, looking for ways to learn and improve.
User Experience instructor Minakshi Mukherjee



The Importance of Disruption

Technology disruption also swerves us away from the traditional career trajectories. You may have already seen it occur. In this data-driven, technology-changing environment, some jobs go away while new ones are created.

The skills in demand only 10 years ago are less-in-demand today. In 2016, LinkedIn analyzed billions of data points for all of the hiring and recruiting activity that occurred on its site to identify the most sought-after skills.

“While some skills expire every couple of years, our data strongly suggests that tech skills will still be needed for years to come, in every industry,” suggests LinkedIn career expert Catherine Fisher.

In 2016, these were the Top 10 in-demand skills:

  1. Cloud and distributed computing 
  2. Statistical analysis and data mining
  3. Web architecture and development framework
  4. Middleware and integration software
  5. User interface design
  6. Network and information security
  7. Mobile development
  8. Data presentation
  9. SEO/SEM marketing
  10. Storage systems and management

So the skills you brought to the job, even five years ago, may not be as in-demand as those for today. Expertise has an ever-shorter shelf life. It can be a scramble to stay current.



The most successful people I know are lifelong learners who are constantly evolving by obtaining new skills and challenging themselves to grow personally and professionally.
Galia Goulisheva, Certificate Program in Marketing graduate



The Introduction of Career Agility

After years of research on achievement and success, Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck published a groundbreaking book on learning and leadership, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (2006). She writes that people with a fixed mindset—those who believe that abilities are fixed—are less likely to flourish than those with a growth mindset—those who believe abilities can be developed, who enjoy challenges and consistently strive to learn more.

“Scientists are learning that people have a much greater capacity for lifelong learning and brain development than they ever thought,” writes Dweck. “People may start with different temperaments and different aptitudes, but it’s clear that experience, training and personal effort take them the rest of the way.”

To reach career agility, you need a mindset that is open to gaining new skills and taking on new roles along the way.

Clearly, investing in yourself is now part of contemporary career development. It’s how you “catch the next wave,” how you “swing on that jungle gym.”

Who knew 21st-century work life would require such rigor—jungle gyms, surfing, reinventing, lifelong learning. It sounds a bit exhausting, yes, but also exhilarating—if we keep a growth mindset.

We surely won’t be making these transitions alone. There will be plenty of good company in classes with other people seeking new skills, for example. Speaking of which, anyone up for hanging at the jungle gym by taking a class or certificate?

Also note, our Career Clinics are designed to help Extension students make these transitions. Check out Finding a New Career Direction and Making a Successful Career Transition, 1-day Saturday workshops at our San Francisco campus in September and October.