The Intercollegiate Student Magazine

The Myth of the Vertical Career

Illustration of a Grey Metal Pyramid and Blue Background

As I approach the end of my undergraduate career this spring, one question is on the lips of every person I speak with, peer, parent, and professor alike: what are you doing after you graduate? I take a pause each time, assessing how the reality measures up against the answer my curious companion seems to want from me, calculating the quickest path to get onto some new topic of discussion. My reaction does not primarily stem from annoyance—though, admittedly, there is some—but from my own personal awareness that the choices I make at 22 do not dictate the course of my life. This attitude is rarely held by my elders and, in most cases, does little to ease the anxieties of my agemates. 

The true answer to the question is quite simple really: I don’t know. I have a short-term nannying job lined up for the summer, but I have no specific plans beyond. The only ‘plan’ in my future is a vague idea that I will eventually buckle down and apply to graduate school, but even that is in flux. My high school self would be horrified by this lackadaisical approach, but she had not yet lived through a global health crisis that would rock the work force to its core. 

The age of the vertical career model has, arguably, been on the decline since the early 21st century. More and more, individuals are breaking away from the mold which prescribes you to tireless work at one company for the bulk of your life in the hopes of upward movement and a pretty little pension post-retirement. Instead, workers are now tending to horizontal movement, jumping from position to position over the course of their working years. As of 2019, workers ages 55 to 64 stayed with an employer for a median of about 9.9 years, while those ages 25 to 34 remained about 2.8 years. 

In order to better grasp the current reformation of the American workforce, let’s dive into a little labor history. The progressive labor movement of the 1930s ushered in a new era of never before seen employer accountability. Unionizers dreamed big, petitioning for policies such as universal healthcare and pension provision, things young progressives still dream of today. Their efforts resulted in measly pacification, including privatized retirement funding and health insurance at the discretion of the employer. Paid time off and the ability to go to the doctor’s office without financial worry were, and still are, “perks,” leaving people little incentive to remain with one company for the duration of their working years.The narrative of the labor movement is often sold without one underlying key detail: these mild improvements were created by and for white men, meaning the benefits were largely lost on BIPOC workers who couldn’t land jobs with such advantages due to systemic inequity. Job safety was never accessible to everyone. It wasn’t designed to be. 

However, the shortcomings of the American labor movements are not the sole contributor to the waning allure of the vertical career model. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated it greatly, as workers were confronted firsthand with government negligence and inadequate regulation. People began to question the legitimacy of lengthy commutes and overly complicated office politics. Whether they were in long-term isolation or doing strenuous labor on the front lines, people found themselves asking, what is this all for? 

So where do we go from here?

College students are riddled with anxiety about what their lives will look like beyond school, an anxiety that is underpinned with the cultural truism that youth ends after these four years. I have neither the intelligence nor the word count to offer some grand solution, but, instead, I offer you a revision of my post-grad plan: I will work, but more than that, I will live. 

In front of me are years of opportunity broken further open by the rise of the horizontal work model. I expect to labor and quit and reassess over and over again, and the possibility of this fluidity is, surprisingly, comforting. Centuries ago a whole bunch of white dudes decided that life was an economic proposition, and now we’ve been left to deal with the consequences. The weight of the future can feel pressing and imminent, but I implore you to ask yourself a different, more effective question: how do you want to feel after you graduate? Go from there. That’s where the good stuff is.

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