Thornton A. May: Why the word 'career' has become obsolete

Like technologies, some words have life spans. They are born, enter the mainstream and then fade into obsolescence. Research from the Olin Innovation Lab and AIIM Executive Leadership Summit posits that the word career is due for a major rethink.

The iconic "gold watch" career path, in which people stay with the same employer for their entire working lives, has become anachronistic.

In the Middle Ages, one never heard the word career. Clerics in their monasteries (the first estate), kings in their courts (the second estate), and commoners in their mud huts (the third estate) didn't discuss career options.

For the 700 years that followed, the annual per capita GDP for the place that would come to be known as Europe would stagnate between $400 and $550 (expressed in constant 1990 U.S. dollars). Your best bet was to pursue a career as king.

In much of early modern Europe, for most of recorded time, what one did occupationally (i.e., one's career) was essentially determined by birth. There was very little choice involved.

The modern concept of a career originated in the mid to late 19th century. The advent of the word career precisely coincides with the expansion of occupational choices. With improved agricultural methods, more food could be produced by fewer people, thereby allowing some subset of the people laboring in the fields to pursue other forms of employment. Technological innovations (like the steam engine) enabled new modes of production (e.g., factories) that expanded the work choices available.

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