Defining “Career”

An overlooked aspect of the term “career “ is how it can serve to limit ideas and choices about one’s work life. defines career as “an occupation or profession, especially one requiring special training, followed as one’s lifework (italics are mine). states that the term career “… refers to the progress and actions you have taken throughout the working years of your life, especially as they relate to your occupation (again, italics are mine).

Both of these definitions seem to paint the term “career” as immutable, a holdover from the twentieth century when in fact the large majority of people chose a career path that stayed constant. Lawyer, doctor, teacher, engineer, accountant, architect. Policeman, carpenter, plumber, electrician, truck driver, machine operator.

Redefining “Career”

In the twenty-first century, however, career fluidity has increased and although statistics are hard to find, anecdotally at least there are more and more examples of people switching careers not just at midlife but at all life stages. Part of this phenomenon can be traced to the increased emphasis on self-realization. Another part is due to greater access to trainings: certifications and online learning makes it easier to acquire the skills necessary to switch the type of work one does. And another, harder to quantify phenomenon is what definitely feels like a reduced stigmatization of career switchers; it is simply more “acceptable,” (and perhaps even admirable) for people to have followed a number of different career tracks.

Defining your “career” is particularly emphasized in the highly competitive DC market. People always want to know “what’s your career?” And there’s a lot of pressure to “figure it out.” I often hear from twenty or thirty-somethings that they need to do that “before it’s too late.” But it’s more OK than it used to be to be unsure about exactly what career you should pursue, or to contemplate switching careers. In fact, it can be helpful to think of “career” as a series of different chapters. These chapters will change as you mature, as your interests and experiences change. Don’t be afraid to let people know that your career choices may be evolving and fluid.