Career Management: Why HR Needs to be Ready With Expert Advice

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Sep 2, 2011

Several demographic and psychographic factors are shifting how we think of careers today. I want to focus on two significant trends which will dramatically change how employees define career success and what they want or need from their work life.

As Human Resource professionals, we need to be the experts when it comes to how the role of changing family structures and other demographic and workforce trends are changing employees’ career expectations.

Changing family structures

The traditional career was born in an era when men were the primary breadwinners of the family and women stayed at home to take care of the household and family.  In fact, in the 1950’s 63 percent of households still maintained this traditional family structure (Benko & Weisberg, 2007).

Male employees from a traditional family structure could focus all of their energy and time into work because someone else was paying attention to the needs of the family and maintaining a household.  This has helped shape the expectations we have in the workplace of how dedicated employees should be to their careers if they want to advance to high-level positions in the organization. In fact, executives — both men and women — at the highest levels of organizations today devote a significant amount of their time to work related activities.

However, today this family model is less and less common. In fact in today’s workplace only 17 percent of households still reflect the traditional structure.

With the rise of single parent homes and dual-career couples, the needs of employees have shifted dramatically. Thus the level of worker dedication that has been traditionally expected in order to “get ahead” is practically impossible for employees today who have to juggle both work and life on a regular basis. Whether it is about managing one’s personal affairs, engaging in leisure activities, volunteer activities, raising children, or managing elder care, our personal lives are very busy.

As a result of changing family structures, women now make up 48 percent of the workforce today (Dychtwald, Erickson & Morision, 2006). Reading through the literature on why women seem to “opt out” of the workforce at some point in their career leads to some interesting conclusions. Mostly, that women are not “opting out,” they are actually writing their own deal and going into non-traditional work environments that provide them with more control over their time.

In fact, women lead the way in terms of entrepreneurs who are starting their own business. Being a business owner is by no means dropping out. It is simply finding a different way to weave together women’s work and personal lives.

New expectations in the workplace

In the knowledge worker economy, workers feel their expertise makes them better decision makers about their work and careers. As a result they want to exert more control over their career and are less willing to yield to the advice of their manager or mentor. From a careers perspective, this means they are very willing to be self-directed and take initiative for their own careers, acting more as “free agents” than lifetime employees.

As a result, company loyalty has been replaced by employees who are savvy about their marketability, and they are regularly making stay/leave decisions based on changing factors in their work and personal lives. While today they may be perfectly happy in their role, as life circumstances change they may seek out alternative job situations if they think their organization is not willing to offer them the flexibility or the deal that suits their current life needs.

If your organization is not providing the flexibility and control that employees are demanding, you may have less ability to attract and retain the best and brightest.

Generation X & Y (Millennial) employees have expressed values that are very pro-family and both men and women indicate that career decisions must consider family first. Thus, for the first time ever it is not unusual for mid-career employees to turn down a promotion because it would require more hours, more travel or relocation, thereby taking away from family time or personal time.

Employees are choosing quality of life over career advancement ? and this is a big change for employers. Those organizations that do not understand this change and take proactive measures to retain their best employees are likely to see a sinking ship of talent once the economy begins to recover.

It is time for organizations to reexamine their expectations about what it takes to be successful and advance in the organization. Face time and working excessively long hours does not necessarily create an environment for people to contribute their best.

We need to be willing to craft careers for that better suit the demand of life we experience today. This new way of managing careers will allow your employees to choose what trade-offs they are willing to make.

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