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  3. Are nonlinear career paths the new normal? Everything you need to know!
Are nonlinear career paths the new normal? Everything you need to know!

Are nonlinear career paths the new normal? Everything you need to know!

Artwork by: Lizabeth Zaft

  • What is a nonlinear career?
  • What are examples of nonlinear careers?
  • The pros and cons of a nonlinear career path
  • 5 Benefits to a nonlinear career path
  • 5 Challenges to a nonlinear career path 
  • Key takeaways 

If you’re thinking about a nonlinear career path, then we’ll help you understand what it means and how you can benefit from it. It isn’t new, but it is becoming the new normal.

In today’s working world, the old traditional career path is becoming less appealing for many people. It used to be that you would go to school, get a degree or certificate, find a job in your chosen field, get promoted to higher roles, and work your way up the company ladder until you reach retirement. This is the typical linear career path. 

Times are changing, and events like the pandemic, technology, and major cultural shifts have caused millennials and just about everyone else to reconsider their career journey and where they want their professional lives to take them. This is where the nonlinear path comes in. People looking to make changes in their careers may choose to change their job in big ways or small ways, but changing direction in ways that are different from the traditional linear path. 

We’ll tell you about nonlinear career paths and how they can help you create a new route to success. Here are the topics we’ll cover:

  • What is a nonlinear career?

  • What are examples of a nonlinear career path?

  • Benefits and challenges of a nonlinear path

Statistical Insight
  • The average American will have 12 jobs during their life

  • In 2022, nearly 32 percent of people aged 25 to 44 considered a career change. 

  • About 29 percent of people have changed their job field.

What is a nonlinear career?

A career path is basically a sequence of jobs that, over time, spans your professional career. In a standard linear career progression, you typically get promoted to the next position up the food chain, and then the next, and so on.

What is nonlinear career growth? This is when your career progression is not just upward in related roles. Following a traditional career path is like driving down a major highway. You might take different off-ramps, but you’re basically following a forward path moving through one industry such as sales, and working your way from associate, to manager, to district manager, and so forth. You’re always heading towards one single destination.

A nonlinear career path would be more like taking a bunch of different side roads that take you in completely different directions. You may start out in car sales and then switch to marketing. Or you might shift from the automotive industry to financial services marketing. These different paths could lead you to go back to school or to get additional training for totally new skills. A nonlinear path will lead you to several different destinations as compared to the old-fashioned linear career progression.

What are examples of nonlinear careers?

The options here are almost limitless. For example, you may start out as an accountant and discover that you’re very intrigued by the computer software used for accounting systems. You consult with your IT staff and work with them on enhancements that make the system easier to use. This may lead you into software development. Your technical skills may enable you to make this shift without being a total change of professions. 

Another example is you’re in accounting for a clean energy consulting business, and you find that you’re very interested in the products and services related to building clean energy programs. This could lead you to decide to get into clean energy sales and consulting for selling solar systems. This is a major shift on a nonlinear path that would involve a change in fields. Nonlinear career paths can take you anywhere you want to go.

The pros and cons of a nonlinear career path

Is a nonlinear career path better than a linear one? The answer is it depends. Be sure to take note of your overall career goals, as well as financial circumstances and personal life. Here are a few general pros and cons you can keep in mind.  

5 Benefits to a nonlinear career path

  1. Increased work flexibility. You’ll have the ability to change roles and industries, and you’re not locked into a particular path.

  2. Gaining diverse experience. Following a nonlinear path gives you the opportunity to pursue a wide variety of skills and experiences, making you more adaptable in a variety of situations and helping to increase your self-confidence.

  3. More personal growth. New challenges and roles will take you out of your comfort zone and force you to gain new skills and areas of expertise. Exposure to new jobs and people will make you learn things about yourself that you didn’t know.

  4. Growing your network. Along with new roles and jobs come new people and relationships which can expand your professional and personal networks.

  5. More opportunities to express your creativity. You can go after your ideas and inspirations to create a career that gives you a better outlet for your creativity.

5 Challenges to a nonlinear career path 

  1. Less stability. With any significant career change comes risk. You may not have what it takes to be successful in your new career path. Sometimes this is not apparent until you get into it.

  2. Fewer options. Some hiring managers will prefer someone with a standard career path, and they can program their ATS software to look for this. In that case, making it past the initial application stage can be more difficult. 

  3. Lack of financial stability. A traditional path provides a defined upward progression of job roles and income growth, switching to a new industry may result in a pay cut.  

  4. Limited skill depth. Changing fields continuously could hinder your ability to become well-honed in one specific area. 

  5. Difficulty building a reputation. Similarly, if you want to be widely known as a subject matter expert in one particular field or industry, it will be harder to establish yourself. 

If you’re not sure what direction to take your career, then check out our career coaching to give you some guidance and help you figure it out. 

Key takeaways 

  1. Nonlinear career paths are much more acceptable than they used to be.

  2. A nonlinear path can be the answer to reinvigorating your career, but that depends on your personal circumstances and needs. 

  3. Be sure to review the pros and cons of a nonlinear career path before taking the leap. 

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