The “linear career path myth” goes something like this: our careers are straight and clear paths that we identify in high school, but only begin once we start a post-secondary pathway (college, university, workplace). This pathway sets us up with employment to take us to the finish line: retirement. High school graduation is the starting line in this “get trained, get there, stay there till you retire” view of our careers.
There are many things that are false about this narrative. I will highlight just two:
- Falsehood #1: this is how careers unfold. Not so: this expectation does not reflect the realities of our current and anticipated labour market.
- Falsehood #2: this ought to be a person’s goal for their own career. Again, not so: in the rare case that this narrow and linear path does work out in a person’s life, they are just as likely to end up feeling locked into it as not.
Part of how the linear career path myth negatively affects people is how it promotes false expectations and leads to frustration. Fortunately, career development professionals are engaging in the important work of combatting this myth. By painting a more realistic picture of career paths, career professionals can help jobseekers and students avoid misunderstanding the labour market and missing opportunities.
However, there is still much more to talk about. In particular, we need to take a closer look at how this myth affects people with disabilities. A person with a disability is often set along a path that, while still linear and fraught with the usual pitfalls, is much shorter.
The linear path myth has a way of making people feel stuck before they even get started.
Within the linear path myth, it’s easy for someone to get stuck thinking they don’t have skills to meaningfully contribute to the workforce just as they are. Many people believe that they can’t begin a career until they have extensive training, the right experience or formal qualifications. For someone with a disability, this same dynamic exists, but can also include an expectation that they must complete a job-readiness program before they can look for a job. By holding on to these expectations, people miss opportunities to contribute their skills and experience because they wrongly think they don’t have anything to offer. The linear path myth leads to people getting stuck before they even get started.
The linear path myth locks people into roles where they feel stuck.
If you believe the linear path model, once you complete a post-secondary pathway, that’s it: you’ve arrived and now you must stay there until retirement. Sure, you are expected to climb whatever ladder is available, but you are stuck within that profession until retirement whether you like it or not. Too much time has been invested to change your mind, and it’s too late to retrain for anything else.
“The linear path myth leads to people getting stuck before they even get started.”
For a person with a disability, there can be additional layers to this. For instance, accommodations arranged for a role may be perceived as permanent by the individual. All too often, once sufficient accommodations have been established for an employee in a particular position, the conversation about evolving roles stops. A narrow perception of what the employee’s training qualifies them for, and recognition that others may have contributed to putting position-specific accommodations in place, leave everyone feeling stuck. Expectations of gratitude, and gratitude genuinely felt, can translate into employees remaining in a specific role long term – at the expense of their career development.
In both scenarios, the linear path myth locks people into roles. It denies a person’s potential to develop new skills, and their desire to shift and continue to explore opportunities.
Another subtle shift
The linear career path for people with disabilities can be further constrained by shifts in language. Instead of talking about careers, the focus becomes jobs or placements. This shift is more than just opting for a synonym: it conveys a shift in expectations. Career often denotes a person’s lifelong goals, whereas the use of the word job suggests it is a means to an end, a paycheque. The linear career path myth, when applied to people with disabilities, becomes the linear job path myth. The goal for someone with a disability is to get the job, stay in the job, until one day they resign.
More from Joanna Goode on CareerWise: The power of a national community of practice
A way forward
Here’s the good news: Because this myth is a familiar foe, we have tools to dismantle it.
To break down the linear path myth, career development professionals can introduce a more accurate narrative – that of an ongoing and winding path. This encourages us to see all of a person’s paid and unpaid experiences as important elements of their career discovery and skill development. It asserts that shifting and exploring opportunities throughout one’s career is not only allowed, but expected. Instead of a linear understanding of one’s career, it is “an ongoing winding path of building skills and improving talent and potential” (Gilbert, Careering magazine, 2020).
These insights of the winding path are part of what informs the Canadian Association for Supported Employment (CASE) in our work of equipping employment service providers to increase employment inclusion for Canadians with a disability.
For people who access supported employment, part of the benefit they experience is for their career counsellor to regularly check in and ask questions about their “winding path.” Importantly, this checking in comes with the expectation that a person may want to change roles, pursue promotion and grow in their skills. Employment professionals support jobseekers in the practical realities of forging their winding paths.
Approaching careers with a linear model doesn’t reflect our employment landscape and doesn’t help jobseekers find meaningful pathways. Let’s use the momentum of deconstructing the linear path myth to identify it wherever it shows up, and learn how to better support all career builders in this lifelong – and very non-linear – process.