As sports fans, we’re all too familiar with the career arch of an athlete. The rare exception to the norm is an athlete who concludes his career on top, retiring a winner and a legend. In 1999, John Elway announced his retirement after leading the Broncos to a Super Bowl XXXIII victory and being named Super Bowl MVP. But most athletes’ stories end far differently. Hall of Famer and stolen base king, Ricky Henderson, couldn’t let the game of baseball go, finishing his Major League Baseball career at age 44, batting just .208 with 3 stolen bases. Even basketball legend Michael Jordan ended his career on a lowly Wizards team that won only 37 games after his second coming out of retirement party. Seasoned sports fans are mentally prepared to watch our favorite players age before our eyes, forcibly pushed into the darkness while younger stars supplant them in the spotlight. But the corporate world, whether you work for a sports team or a Fortune 500 company, has a completely different career trajectory. One where you start at the bottom, work your way to the top and retire from a highly paid management position. Not an arch but a ladder to climb. That’s usually how it works, right? Or maybe its not.
The reality is that company organization charts always skinny at the top. There are a much larger number of entry level workers than there are middle managers. Even fewer are the number of Vice Presidents who run divisions or departments. And each org chart has one box at the top labeled ‘CEO’. Though most of us know the corporate ladder imagery, a vision of working hard and climbing our way to the top, the large majority of us will end our careers somewhere in the middle. But there is no shame in retiring without a ‘Vice President’ title. And that’s why it’s time to debunk the corporate career ladder myth. A career arch can bring you money, happiness and self-worth. And, unlike the ladder metaphor, the arch also represents the transition from a high stress work environment to a better focus on establishing a proper work, life balance.
The arch imagery is a much more accurate one for the typical corporate career. Each field is obviously different but most of us start at entry level roles within a company. Employees learn the basics of marketing, sales, finance, operations or IT from the bottom up. If there is a desire and aptitude to take on more responsibility, there are promotions and pay raises along the way, represented by the escalation of the arch. Unless you’re one of the truly elite amongst your peers or have recently obtained a higher degree, the rate at which you’re promoted may taper at some point. It doesn’t mean your career is no longer rising but promotions come every five years instead of every two years. Because, though you put in extra hours to keep up with an ever expanding set of responsibilities, leadership positions become scarcer the higher you rise. And consider the new priorities creeping into your life at the later stages of your career. With marriage and children comes more family time and less desire to sit in a cubicle on the weekends. It doesn’t necessarily mean demotions are a part of getting older though. But you might be assigned fewer projects than a less experienced employee who is more willing to work every night and all weekend to establish himself, something you’ve already done. Though annual raises that once topped 5% may now dip down to 2%, you’re total salary is much higher so the amount your paycheck increases shouldn’t be dramatically different. Even with smaller raises or fewer responsibilities, you can still have a wildly successful career. You learn to leverage others more and turnover higher quality work. But, as careers wind down, it’s natural to realize the importance of the world outside the office and take your mind away from work when your computer shuts down at five o’clock. And, as your career arch declines, it intersects with your personal arch, an inverted one, that trends upward later in life.
The inverted personal arch starts at a high point when you’re a child and young adult. Your life centers around building relationships with family and friends, not making a living and paying bills. It dips as you start working because you’re establishing your career which requires extra time and effort. But as your career winds down, more time is spent cultivating relationships by traveling with family, visiting grandkids, socializing with friends or exploring a hobby. The golden years, i.e. retirement, are the years spent wholly focused on family, friends and interests; the final peak of the personal arch.
The career arch and inverted personal arch overlay each other with intersecting points in early adulthood and late career hood. It’s certainly not all or nothing when it comes to focusing on our personal or professional lives. None of us completely ignore our personal lives during career peaks and some people work or volunteer part time before their careers begin and again after it ends. The corporate career arch imagery isn’t meant to suggest that older employees are less valuable or not as desirable as younger workers. It just validates the reality that not every employee ends up at the top of an organization chart. And it proves that, at one point our careers may be all consuming but, for most of us, non-office hours eventually become about entertaining the kids or sharing a drink with friends, not neurotically scanning a BlackBerry or attending conference calls while on vacation.