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Why Non-Linear is the Only Career Path Forward

The new and true reality of the millennial generation

By Matthew Thomas

Imagine, you’re 22-years-old.

You’re native to the world of constant information, social media, fake news and precarious work. You’re staring down 1,000 job postings in a sea of what feels like none at all. The famed linear career ladders of your parents and grandparents just don’t appeal. But they still want you to find one.

You have an average student loan debt of $25,000 [1].

Getting a “foot in the door” will likely require you to work for free, like more than 300,000 unpaid Canadian interns [2].

You’re living with your parents, just like 40 per cent of adults between 20-29, compared to just 27 per cent 30 years ago [3].

The eye-rolling response of the world?

“You’re part of the most entitled generation in history.”
There’s a certain comfort in labelling generations

It helps mark eras. It creates camaraderie. It also helps distinguish ourselves from our parents and our children.

Millennials will cultivate their careers in a world that is more culturally, politically and economically complex and unstable than at any other time in decades.

No motivated, university-educated person wants to live with mom and dad at 27-years-old. No one. Not 30 years ago. Not now. These aren’t choices.

Unprecedented student debt. Working for free. Living at home. An unstable economy and the certainty of job churn. This is the millennial reality.

The generation is also, officially, the most anxious, stressed and depression-addled generation…ever [4].
Unheard-of uncertainty

It’s well known that for the first time in modern history, we have three generations sharing the workplace – the boomers, Generation X, and the millennial boomer offspring. For these millennials, competition for jobs is fierce, while expectations for employment security, benefits, retirement and pension plans have been dramatically lowered – almost to the point of being accepted as the status quo.

And though all of us are feeling a bit out of sorts these days, it’s the millennials that will be tasked with finding a way out of the economic, environmental, political and overall global mess we’ve found ourselves in. It’s the millennials that will be paying for our healthcare, stewarding our environment, and supporting our quality of life as we age.

But only if they are working and fulfilled.

That’s why it’s so urgent to help this generation get their careers back on track.


Career paths just aren’t the same anymore

But the career paths and advice that worked for prior generations just doesn’t work for today’s young workers.

Millennials aren’t interested in locking into a job or even an industry for a generation. Compared to 20 years ago, today’s recent graduates jump from company to company at nearly twice the rate during their first five years of working [5].

Moreover, the next 20 years will see unprecedented levels of automation. This new reality won’t just affect low-skilled or precarious workers. A detailed analysis by McKinsey & Company of 2,000-plus work activities for more than 800 occupations found that automation and artificial intelligence will transform knowledge-intensive career paths too, such as medicine, law and finance [6]. Currently demonstrated technologies are already capable of automating medical image analysis [7], basic legal research [8], and financial reporting [9].


Preparing for non-linear careers

Gone are the days of linear career paths.

Instead, having a multi-pronged approach to career building is an absolute necessity today: where you build the resiliency to switch careers when you’re forced to, and the confidence to switch when you want to.

It’s time to leverage job churn instead of being victimized by it.

After interviewing over 200 professionals who successfully switched careers across sectors, disciplines, and functions, I discovered a set of habits that millennials will need to succeed in a non-linear career [10]. They include:

● Transferable Skills. Build a skillset that can be used across many careers, like problem solving, relationship building, project management, etc.

● Intellectual Thead. Have a core issue at the centre your career, and spend time understanding it from a variety of differing perspectives.

● Contextual Intelligence. Learn to notice and adapt to different working cultures, goals and jargon quickly. That’s critical to fitting in.

● Balanced Motivations. Understand your career motivations (e.g., doing good, making money, improving self), and make moves that satisfy them.

● Integrated Network. Build a network that cuts across many industries and sectors. A diverse network will help you switch careers later in life.

● Prepared Mind. Take on new challenges when they are presented, not just when you feel ready. There may never be a perfect time for a career move.

We need to change the nature of career education to prepare young people for the new, non-linear career paths ahead of them, and embrace modern-day technology tools to reach more students, and change more lives.

Let’s work together to turn this new reality into a strategic advantage.



Matthew Thomas is the Co-Founder and CEO of Paddle, a career discovery platform for millennials. His research on non-linear careers was published by Harvard Business Review and Oxford University Press, and influenced White House staffing during President Obama’s second term. Matthew previously worked across the public, private and non-profit sectors with McKinsey & Co., Department of Finance Canada, Morgan Stanley, and The Intersector Project.










[8] and


[10] Thomas, M., & Lovegrove, N. The Gifts of Breadth. Re-imagining Capitalism. Oxford University Press (2016).

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Lucie Morillon
Lucie Morillon is the Bilingual Content & Communications Co-ordinator for CERIC. With a passion for quality content, she connects with her online communities and provides strong resources to engage members – and always encourages new ones to get involved. She identifies, creates and curates the content destined for the ContactPoint website, the weekly CareerWise newsletter and Careering magazine.

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