What is a 21st Century Career?

In the very olden days, a career was a job you were born into. You became a farmer, a fisher, a blacksmith, or whatever your parents had been, and your children would be the same (unless they wandered off to war or to start a new religion). In the more recent olden days, a career was forty years working in the same factory from high school graduation to retirement. But what is a career today? No one expects to do what their parents do, and no one expects to hold down the same job for more than 5 years (unless you’re in the government!).

So what is a career today? And do you even want one?

Some people define their career as working in the same role / industry / field for their entire life. For instance, a person might get a degree in electrical engineering and then spend the next forty years working in electrical engineering types of jobs for various companies, and all the while introducing himself at cocktail parties as “an electrical engineer.” That seems pretty straightforward.

But as many of us know, technology is evolving at a frightening pace today. The skills you learned in college were obsolete by the time you graduated, and the industry you’re in today might not even exist in 5 years (thanks internet, email, iTunes, ebooks, and hovercars!).

What is your plan for the present? To work hard and hope for the best?

What is your plan for the future? To still be doing what you’re doing in forty years?

The idealist in all of us is thinking the same thing: I just want to work my 8 hours a day in a nice, climate-controlled office and slowly work my way up the corporate ladder until I can retire at a ripe old age.

But that’s just not realistic anymore. In fact, we may be entering a period of economic history in which that sort of career is increasingly rare, if not impossible (outside of government work, of course). We may be entering an era of continuous change, of continuous re-education and self-re-invention. The concept of a career itself may be becoming obsolete.

So what should you be doing right now? If you’re a software programmer, maybe you should be writing your own applications in your spare time. If you’re an artist, maybe you should be creating works to sell online, or offering freelance services. If you’re a business analyst or manager, maybe you should be partnering up with old friends to start side businesses, or investments. The point is that it is no longer enough to just spend 8 hours a day in one job. That’s not a career. That’s just a job.

And the scary thing today is how fragile a job can be. A few Americans take out mortgages they cannot afford and everyone in Europe loses their savings, and the economy of Iceland collapses. Some kids in Silicon Valley invent email and suddenly the postal service is doubling the price of stamps just to make ends meet.

Everyday, new technologies are invented that make old technologies, or old industries, completely unnecessary. The invention of the automobile destroyed the horse-driven carriage world, but replaced it with a new industry. But now, telecommuting could one day make personal transport irrelevant. Imagine a world full of people who work from home, order groceries online, take classes online, go shopping online… hmm. It seems that world is nearly here already. In that world, we wouldn’t need cars, or car makers, or garages. We’d only need a few trucks to deliver our food and giant TVs, and maybe a doctor from time to time.

Or what about home-made movies? Digital animating and editing software could one day allow a skilled director to make an entire movie, complete with original music, sound effects, and actor performances without leaving the basement, and then distribute it online for pennies. If Hollywood went out of business, think of all the artists and technicians (and accountants and agents) who would lose their livelihoods, forever.

This isn’t an exaggeration. It’s not techno-hysteria. Consider your own high-tech life. Do you shop online? If so, you don’t need cashiers or bagboys or sales reps. Do you bank online? If so, you don’t need bank tellers or mortgage reps. And once we don’t need brick-and-mortar stores, then we don’t need bricks, mortar, engineers, architects, inspectors, contractors, or anything else needed to build physical things. And this is before we start talking about the world of outsourcing technical work to other countries.

But what about you? High school and college kept you very busy for 8 years. Your master’s program or medical school probably kept you pretty busy as well. But now you’re adrift in the working world and your fate is in the hands of several executives who can afford to retire whenever they want, and managers who probably have enough contacts to jump ship and get a new position whenever they want. Which leaves you, O intrepid young professional, out in the cold, wondering what happened to your career, what happened to working hard and hoping for the best?

Which is why you need to have more irons in the fire, more projects in the evening, on the weekend, on the side. Your day-job is just that, your day-job. It’s not your career. Your career is the sum of all your professional endeavors, and if your only professional endeavor is to spend 8 hours a day at a desk shuffling papers for someone who is ready to retire, then your career is already in trouble.

The good news, however, is that you can start bulding your personal empire right now, through the magic of the internet. If you make anything that can be sold, start making some more: artwork, articles, designs, applications, jewelry, clothing, investments. If you can freelance, do it, in your spare time. And if your day-job doesn’t translate into anything you can do in your spare time, then take a look at your hobbies. What do you like to do? Cook? Garden? Teach? I’ll bet you could find a way to turn your passion into something worth putting on a resume if you tried.

The bottom line here is that life is very long, and it can be very expensive, and you cannot rely on any company, or even any industry, to continue to support you over the next several decades. Your best bet is to invest more time and effort in yourself, and while education seems like a smart investment, your own lines of business could prove far more profitable, and far more reliable, in the long term.

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Joseph Lewis is a writer and editor who has worked in the public and private sectors, including military, health care, and technology firms. Visit Joe's site


  1. Dan Schawbel on the 20th February

    Joseph, great post about the future of careers and I couldn’t agree more. It is very rare to see people work for the same corporate for decades now, especially when it’s near impossible to move up a corporate ladder with insane competition. People are easily replaceable right now and since there are 6 job seekers for every 1 job, you really have to be incredible at what you do an have a network to have a chance in life. The future of work is all consultants in my opinion. 26% of Americans are freelancers and that number is growing fast. The old corporate hierarchy is broken!

  2. brandscaping on the 20th February

    excellent article Joe –
    the days of expecting the company to take care of you are long gone.
    If your name isn’t on the package – you’re vulnerable.

    good read with great advice – thanks!

  3. Martin on the 20th February

    Really good read, Joe.
    I am a big advocate of this sort of working outside of work. I’m surpised by people who just go to work and don’t have any kind of Plan B or additional strings to their bow; no other ambition.
    Your distinction between job and career is also very apt. I wish Alain de Botton wrote this kind of stuff in his work-related philosophy book.


  4. Paul Letourneau on the 20th February

    Great article Joe!

    It’s true about how the world is being taken over by technology and putting more and more people out of work every day. My question is will it last and what will all those other people do who don’t work within the online environment?

    • Joseph Lewis on the 20th February

      Paul, I wonder if our future economic-society will be sharply divided between e-workers and physical workers (making things, fixing things, delivering things) with no middlemen in the *ahem* middle.

  5. Martin on the 20th February

    Really good read, Joe.
    I am a big advocate of this sort of working outside of work. I’m surpised by people who just go to work and don’t have any kind of Plan B or additional strings to their bow; no other ambition.
    Your distinction between job and career is also very apt. I wish Alain de Botton wrote this kind of stuff in his work-related philosophy book.

    Martin D

  6. TH on the 20th February

    This is the most depressing thing I’ve read in a long time. There are millions of ordinary folks that don’t have the drive, personality or sheer ability to be an entrepreneur – it makes me very sad to think that the wish to live a simple life comprised of 8-9 hours work, sharing a few hours together as family relaxing and then enjoying a good night’s sleep is now considered lazy, outdated and somehow out of step with what’s happening today.

    • Paul Letourneau on the 23rd February

      I agree that it’s depressing but the numbers don’t lie. The amount of young and not so young ambitious people out there that have been taught to follow their dreams and ‘be all you can be’ has increased… and is still on the rise.

      Generation Y is the largest generation of them all and they are already consuming faster that all the Baby Boomers…

    • Joseph Lewis on the 23rd February

      This is true, lots of people will not thrive in the Information Age, or the Online Age, just as many people did not thrive in the Industrial Age. There will always be a segment of the workforce in low-paying, dead-end, unstable jobs.

      Once upon a time, almost everyone had to be a good farmer or else starve to death. In a sense, they were all freelance farmers, or entrepreneurs in their time.

      In the future, we may revert to a similar model, but with more job options than just “farmer” or “shepherd.” It may be that the Industrial Age companies will prove to be a blip in economic history.

  7. Tom Kraetschmer on the 20th February

    Cheers Joe, excellent post. Think it’s a sharp future scenario you draw with a great amount of true facts. I don’t fully agree in every respect though, as some aspects – such as physical travelling by car – are inevitable in my opinion. Not neccesarily for jobs, but for quality of life, which at the end of the day might be seen as the power for our freelancer batteries. Another question is that of social contacts and skills. It’s true that latest technology gives us an armada of tools into our hands to work with. That is awesome and i am just stumbling into this at present. But thinking to be of more importance just because you’re on facebook and the such, doesn’t automatically bring you freelance jobs. It’s all about airplay, marketing, talent and skills you can offer.

    It’s like holding the tool of a hammer up in the air. Does this make me an excellent carpenter? Not at all – practice does. And I fully agree with you, it’s never too late to start working practically.

    • Joseph Lewis on the 23rd February

      Oh, never say anything is “inevitable”! Wiser people than you and I have declared things to be useless and silly, like tanks, airplanes, and personal computers.

      The Internet Era is barely 20 years old and it is already threatening to destroy and reinvent our industries for music, television, newspapers, books, mail, telephones, and movies. We live in an era of rapid and unpredictable change.

  8. Thera on the 22nd February

    “it is no longer enough to just spend 8 hours a day in one job”

    For some of us, it never was enough in the first place :/

  9. Paul Letourneau on the 23rd February

    I’m starting to think that our workforce will be divided and there will come a time when all businesses must take an honest look at their organization and decided which part of their labor force belongs on which side.

    Regardless, the next 2-5 years will be very interesting. Just take a look at what has happened with newspapers in the last 5 years. Most if not all are online and most have drastically reduced the amount of employees they have.

    At least that’s the way it is here in Canada.

    • Joseph Lewis on the 23rd February

      Newspapers are a unique sort of bellweather. Newspapers rely on advertising for income, and advertisers rely on people to buy newspapers every day.

      So as soon as a person buys a computer and sees news online, they stop buying newspapers…forever! Most industries are not so fragile that they rely on customers to buy their product every day, or have intellectual products that can be easily replaced.

      To really think about this, we would need to examine complete supply chains. For example, as long as people live in houses, then we need contractors, builders, surveyors, plumbers, electricians, wood, bricks, nails, bolts, lumber yards, iron mines, tool manufacturers, and so on.

      Of course, if we ever develop genetically altered trees that can simply grow into houses on their own, then all of those industries I listed will collapse in a few years.

  10. Dila on the 14th August

    Wow.. this post really hit home, Joseph. For me a career is making stable income in what we love to do best and will never feel burnt out doing it. I’m loving my freelance writing career but it’ll be sweeter when I can make it as a full time. Wish me luck 🙂


  11. Yogacan on the 4th February

    What?? What about the 4 hour work week? I am ready to work more than 8 hours a day and have plan B C D and all the side projects that come my way NOW but I want this to be my transition to the 4 hour work week (OK let’s say 4h/a day workweek)…so yes depressing indeed but for different reasons.

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