Is the Career Dead?

06/04/2013 05:27 pm ET | Updated Aug 04, 2013

Saeid Fard, like many people his age, is unsure of what his next step is in life. Being 26, he still has the gift of youth and the time to experiment. But unlike most people his age, Saeid has already been through multiple, "successful" careers.

After graduating with a degree in finance from Queen's University in Canada and completing prestigious summer internships at Goldman Sachs, he took a position at McKinsey & Company as a consultant. Traveling around the world and dealing with major corporations, Saeid had, at a very young age, found himself in a position that very few people get to.

Why then did he jump out of the finance and consulting world? Why did he decide to apply to school to study philosophy while most his peers from McKinsey were going the Harvard MBA route? What led him to enter the world of design, both print and web? Since his time as a consultant, Saeid has been: a project manager at a wind farm, a print designer for multiple clients, an entrepreneur, and a web designer and a web developer -- all self taught.

As stories like Saeid's become more common, we need to ask ourselves: Is this the new norm? Jumping from career to career used to be seen as flighty or uncommitted, but this may just be a new reality. With these changes, the concept of career planning may seem like an oxymoron. Is the entire notion of a "career" dead as we know it? Not at all -- we just need to accept this new reality and plan for it. In order to understand what Saeid, and others like him, face when they talk about career planning, we need to look at careers as a whole. It is no longer possible to look at careers as linear paths; they must instead be approached with adaptability. There are three questions to ask yourself when planning a career in this new economy.

What Do You Know?

The notion of a career developed with the emergence of free-market economics; people needed goods and services, and wages to acquire them. People began earning wages by honing a single skill through an "apprenticeship" with a master in that field. Upon completion, the apprentice would settle into that role in society for life.

The second wave of career development came with the improvement of technology, the effects of globalization, and the advent of the corporation. As society learned about economies of scale, it determined that it was advantageous to group people with similar skills to produce things on a global stage. In return, corporations would pay people a wage based on the nature and demand of their skill. Careers were then seen as a linear, 30-year period of time over which we traded that skill for income.

During this period, globalization was relatively constrained. We continued to protect creativity and knowledge, and with these things, the existence of the 30-year trade. With the proliferation of the internet came the cross-border, instantaneous transfer of information. Technology led to the democratization of knowledge, and what was once contained by schools or in-house teaching became available to anyone with the desire to attain it. Suddenly, learning was not limited to institutions, but could instead be passed along through mediums like blogs, Google, and Wikipedia. With this widespread access to information came increased skepticism of traditional education systems; people began to question the costs and values of universities, and new technologies stayed on top of this trend -- the most recent of which is the sudden influx of MOOC's (massive open online courses). Knowledge, the most important capital for career development, was suddenly available at the world's fingertips.

Who Cares About What You Know?

The value and demand for skills, and therefore careers, can be explained simply by the supply and demand of those skills. With the democratization of knowledge, and the increased access to information, the supply side of the curve is increasing. At the same time, technology is commoditizing many of these skills, ultimately decreasing the demand. This is a bad combination for this generation, as the vehicle for transferring skill into money is slowly disappearing.

A positive spin can be put on the same formula. By now we have heard of the "skills gap", the approximately three million jobs in the United States that are posted by cannot be filled. These careers still require formal, institutionalized knowledge -- but are not promoted as regularly by the institutions in our day-to-day lives, whether our families, our schools, or the media. Because of this, the supply side of these skills is incredibly low, but is in high demand. Examples of these careers include trades skills such as welding, plumbing and HVAC technicians. There are numerous vehicles for transferring these skills into monetary value; in fact, the 30 year time-for-money exchange may still exist in a strong way for these careers.

Is What You Know Worth Money?

Careers, like anything else in this world, exist in cycles. Careers that are in high demand today may become commoditized tomorrow, and careers that were once in such low demand that we outsourced them to other countries are beginning to return. An example is the manufacturing industry -- once outsourced overseas, companies like GE and Apple are bringing those jobs back to their home countries.

The question you must ask yourself is: Do the skills and knowledge you possess currently fall under a supply-high or supply-low cycle? If it is in a supply-low cycle, you can invest your time into transferring your skill into money through a corporation or external entity. If, however, your career is in a supply-high cycle, you have the much more arduous task of investing in yourself. You must become the vehicle in which that knowledge is transferred into wealth.

Career Planning for the New Generation

When we talk about finding a "perfect career," we no longer mean a single object. We don't expect that you will be doing one thing for your entire life. In fact, the average person now has 11.5 jobs in a lifetime, 3-4 of those being complete career switches. So that averages out to changing jobs or careers every 2.5 to 3 years. Scared yet?

This is actually a new version of a career that we've labelled a "career band" -- a collection of careers with similar characteristics that lead into one another. An example of a career band may be the collection of professional experiences an individual has within the film industry. There exists most likely 20-30 "careers" or roles within film that have many similar characteristics. A person should expect to move from one role to another within 2-3 years, acquiring skills and knowledge from the previous role, and transferring it into the new one. At the end of the band, after 20-30 years -- you may have a "goal career," say film director or producer.

In this sense, the end of the 30-year career is not a burden: it is a gift. It gives people the opportunity to try on different roles and learn from each of them. The key in each job or career change is not to be random in your efforts. Most people don't identify how their character and unique makeup affects career choices and compatibility. This is always the first step, regardless of how many careers you have had previously. If you don't feel as if you are on the right path or are in the right band, you must go through a process of "discovery" - finding the core of what you are meant to do. It's difficult to overstate how important this is. Without this process, it's hard to even take the first step.

Career planning isn't going anywhere -- in some ways, it is just starting. As we saw with Saeid, the increased variance of career options, and the changing standards of the time we devote to careers, have drastically changed the process of career planning. The most important thing people can do to stay ahead of the curve is to learn about themselves, understand and develop their own strengths, and be ready to adapt to the changes in the workforce. The world will not accommodate you, so don't wait around for it.