What is a career in the 21st century?

Having a ‘career’ doesn’t just mean being a professional, such as a doctor or lawyer. It can be anything from plumbing to footballing!

The key thing that differentiates a career from a job is that with a career, you’ve trained and progressed in a field of work.

A succession of employments

One way of thinking about a ‘career’ is as a succession of jobs (including self-employment) which relate to each other through specialist knowledge, skills or experience.

The jobs might relate to each other very closely – for example, a person might train as a nurse and then go on to a succession of roles, all in nursing. Or they might relate to each other less closely: somebody might train in nursing and become a Registered Nurse, but then use their skills and knowledge to go on to jobs in social work or counselling. This is not exactly the same thing, but the person has applied their skills to something similar. That is what ‘transferable skills’ are – a term you might come across!

Progression on your CV

Have you written a CV yet? If you have, you’ll know that it generally includes a mixture of education and employment information. As you get older the employment section gets bigger and shows your progression in the world of work. This is because in your first job you gain skills, knowledge and experience. You put these on your CV (or application form), and these then become a kind of passport to your next job. You then do the same with the second job, and so on. In this way your CV has become a chain of jobs related to each other by the skills and experience you have gained - in other words, a career!


Training and professional courses are another way in which you can create links in this ‘chain’ by gaining new skills and knowledge. We’re very lucky these days to have so many courses available to us – including weekend and evening classes, distance learning short courses and even degrees. As you go into the world of work, it is good not only to identify the skills you are gaining, but also to be able to see when you need training to develop yourself. These are key parts of career planning in the 21st century.

Moving up the ladder?

The idea of a career for many people means moving up a ladder. Each job you do will enable you to gain further skills and experience, which in turn will enable you to go for promotions in the same organisation or better jobs elsewhere. But it’s worth remembering that some people don’t want to go up the corporate ladder - and why should they? It may be that this is not their goal in life and they get job satisfaction from other things, such as helping people or being creative. So we shouldn’t assume that a career is just about ladder-climbing.

Portfolio careers? Self-employment?

A recent trend is the rise of the ‘portfolio career’. This basically means doing several paid jobs, either at the same time (part-time) or on a seasonal basis. For example, you might be employed as a part-time counsellor, but have another job as a photographer doing work at the weekend such as weddings. Or you might come across somebody who works as a ski instructor in the winter and a holiday rep in the summer, perhaps also earning money by writing travel guides. The media has been reporting for some time that part-time working, self-employment and contracting are becoming more and more common, and this is likely to be a long-term trend. A portfolio career offers freedom, flexibility and variety, and it suits people who would rather not be employed full time by one organisation.

Job for life?

A job for life is a rare thing nowadays. The world of work is changing, with new roles emerging (such as the growing field of cyber security) and more traditional jobs disappearing (such as farming, which now employs far fewer people than in the previous century).

With the advent of the global economy and the internet, we are lucky because there are many opportunities for us to shape and succeed in building our careers. How will you shape and build yours?

Will you train in a traditional profession, or go for something new? Will you be self-employed or have a portfolio career? The good news is, although you can plan ahead now, you don’t have to, because career planning is a process that will go on for pretty much your whole working life. Just figure out your starting point and get the training and experience you need for that. Good luck!