How to progress in your job without a career ladder

career Shot of a group of businesspeople clapping during a conference

Women, and particularly women of colour, struggle to progress up the traditional career ladder but there are still ways to progress in your job. (Mikolette via Getty Images)

It used to be that companies offered a straightforward career ladder. You took a junior role as an apprentice or assistant – and if you performed well, you could work your way up the rungs. You might become a supervisor, a manager and perhaps even land a top job among the bosses. You could count on a steady climb in salary, job title and responsibilities until retirement at 60.

Today, this kind of progression is rarer. There are fewer managerial roles available, as they’re filled with older workers. The retirement age is higher. Larger organisations have become much smaller, so there are fewer opportunities for promotions.

It’s especially difficult for women – particularly women of colour – to advance up a traditional career ladder. A recent survey by McKinsey found that “broken rungs” further down the career ladder are driving the unequal representation of women in top leadership positions. For every 100 men appointed in lower-level leadership positions, 87 women are appointed. This means there is a smaller pool of potential female leaders to move on to high-level leadership positions.

Read more: What are ‘ghost jobs’ and how can you spot them?

While some employers may offer a clearWhat are ‘ghost jobs’ and how can you spot them? career path, many professionals must now carve out their own routes by developing their skills, networking and jumping between roles and companies.

“While the traditional career ladder still exists, it isn’t always about following rigid rungs as a tried and tested route to success,” says career coach Victoria McLean, CEO & founder of career consultancy City CV.

“In my experience, it depends on what progress and promotion mean in a wider context,” she adds. “There’s a new bouncy confidence about this, especially for people in their 20s and 30s who are defining career progress in a more dynamic way. Side hustles can become successful careers, as lockdown showed us quite emphatically.”

And, McLean adds, an increasing number of people simply aren’t interested in climbing the ladder. The World Values Survey, published in September 2023, found that Millennials and Generation Z individuals place less value on work than they used to. A decade ago, 41% of Millennials thought work should come first. Today, that figure has dropped to 14%.

Millennials corporate life. Young people lying on the floor around working materials, relaxing, having fun during short break.Millennials corporate life. Young people lying on the floor around working materials, relaxing, having fun during short break.

Millennials and Generation Z tend to put less emphasis on climbing the career ladder than previous generations. (golubovy via Getty Images)

“People I’ve spoken to are increasingly seeking fulfilment and personal growth as key factors in their career path, and they’re choosing employers with aligned values,” says McLean. “What’s really interesting is that we’re seeing a move towards employees customising their careers to suit their priorities, their personal life and their passions.”

So if a career ladder is unavailable to you – or you don’t want to climb one – what can you do to progress in your career?

It used to be that once you were hired by an employer, you stayed loyal to that company for years – but this is no longer the case. With fewer chances for internal progression, workers are choosing to move around more frequently.

For instance, ResumeLab’s research on Generation Z conducted in August 2023 revealed that 83% of Gen Z workers consider themselves job hoppers. This approach may well pay off, as Office for National Statistics (ONS) data shows workers who change jobs within a year of beginning a role have consistently higher hourly wage growth over those who stay.

Read more: Does being ‘high functioning’ mask mental health problems at work?

“You’re not locked in for life any more with the same organisation so you can often make the next step happen quickly by switching employers,” says McLean.

“And if you’re happy where you work, if the culture suits you, think about sliding sideways – seek out more opportunities to diversify your skill set, giving you versatile and transferable skills which will move you in a new direction in the future.”

McLean also advises prioritising your personal branding, as non-linear careers often demand the ability to self-promote effectively. “Part of this is making sure your LinkedIn profile is bang up to date, as building connections, interacting and networking is so important for boosting your visibility in the space you want to be seen in,” she says.

“Finally, if this squiggly approach feels chaotic rather than adventurous, getting some coaching to clarify your own definition of career progress might also be really useful.”

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