Before I became a fully fledged member of the 50% Career Club – with just an inkling that leadership was not my spirit role – I had a meeting with my line manager. The talking point, besides which Pret barista was most likely to give us free coffee, was my trajectory. Was I gunning for her job, our boss’s, the CEO’s empire? My manager was (and I’m not just saying it because she might read this) a warm, efficient and visionary leader. Had I been plotting domination, I imagine us as Wonder Woman and Katniss, armed with complimentary coffees in Instagrammable corner offices.
But we weren’t looking in the same direction. The writing jobs she suggested I delegate were what made me excited to set my 6am alarm. When I heard ‘leadership’, my #girlboss instincts weren’t thinking how best to run a team, but how I’d fit in my solo projects. “The thing is,” I confessed, guiltily, “I’m content where I am.” And with that, I’d uttered one of the two C-words that are definitely NSFW.
But new research is forcing employers to look at contentedness more positively. Of 19,000 20-34 year olds surveyed, only 4% wanted to manage others, with just 6% aiming for a CEO position. When asked why they weren’t shooting for the top, 52% said they were simply happy with the role they currently had. Karen, 29, deputy head of an infant school, understands: “I have no desire to be the head teacher because it’s all paperwork and meetings – the more you get promoted, the further away you are from the job you love.” Carla, 34, recently left a senior media role after “years in the line of fire” as team head. “Management was thrust upon me – I had no training and wasn’t prepared for office politics.” In fact, most managers rate the stress of transitioning to the top as worse than the trauma of going through a divorce. So why, if management isn’t everyone’s natural vocation, have we all continued to treat it as a job’s holy grail?
The answer is a combination of convention and psychology, believes Karen Dillon, co-author of How Will You Measure Your Life? “It’s exciting when someone says you’d be a great manager – you think, ‘Well, I must want that,’” she explains. “But are you saying yes because you’re excited, or because you don’t think you should say no? It’s easy to get caught up in the compliment, but if there’s a lump in your throat from the very beginning, it won’t go away.”
The many traditional ‘sweeteners’ of senior management – better salary, generous expenses, a firm’s loyalty to you – are no longer guaranteed. “Changes in technology mean that people can’t count on a position, or even a company, being around forever,” admits Adam Smiley Poswolsky, author of The Quarter-Life Breakthrough: Invent Your Own Path, Find Meaningful Work, And Build A Life That Matters. “The old corporate career ladder is dead because more people aren’t looking to get to the top any more. Instead, they want an experience that allows them to learn new skills and grow as a person. And they want that impact now – not the delayed gratification of making it to a chief-level position and having a sweet retirement package.”
In the past, getting heard professionally meant pulling rank; today, social media has given everyone influence without the need for seniority or shouting. This softer, more collaborative approach – known as ‘horizontal relations’ – is trickling into career structures. “Millennial women would rather be loved than feared – we like to lead from the middle,” says Gabrielle Bosché, author of The Millennial Entrepreneur and founder of The Millennial Solution, a training company for engaging Gen Y employees. “That means CEOs with desks next to interns, staff at every level making important changes, and management roles on rotation where everyone gets the chance to be the lead.”
What Adam and Gabrielle also agree on is that gathering professional skills – aiming wide rather than high – is the new career currency. “Think of your career as a pond of lily pads spread out in all directions. This doesn’t mean you should quit your job every six months for another lily pad, but it does mean that, to remain competitive, you have to become good at one thing, and then another thing, and figure out where those two skills intersect to add more value to your company,” says Adam. It’s why the ‘So, what do you do?’ question is increasingly more than just a one-word answer. “It’s not unusual to meet a lawyer-turned-baker or a merchandiser-turned-techie,” adds Gabrielle. “Millennials suffer from major career FOMO: we want to explore every option and opportunity to the point where no one single occupation defines who we are.”
Take Amy. At 30, she left a director role in PR to move to her ‘dream house’ in a small French village, which cost less than a one-bed east London flat. She now works remotely doing communications for the UK, teaches yoga in the village, and is training to become a career and life coach. “For several months, I had this guilty feeling, like I should be doing the same as everyone else back home,” she says. “But I still feel less anxious than I did when I was trying to scramble up the career ladder, and I’m glad I turned my back on promotions and team management to focus on what I’m really good at.”
In the US, Bentley University researched how equipped graduates were for the workplace, but what it found was that the very concept of a workplace was changing: two-thirds of interviewees planned to launch companies, while 37% wanted to work alone. Combine this new culture of empowered solo workers with the lack of security in traditional roles and it explains why we’re suddenly ditching the ladder to fulfil the now-or-never ideas in our heads.
Sheila, now 36, used to be head of marketing for a tableware manufacturer, managing eight people. “I wanted to travel; to see something other than the office and conference centres,” she says. So, at 34, she quit and applied for Divemaster training in Indonesia. “After two months, I joined a crew to sail the Indian Ocean. I changed from New York City career girl to coconut-cracking pirate girl – and there are plenty of websites, such as workaway.info or couchsurfing.com, that make travelling on a shoestring easy.” When she returned, she rejoined her previous company, overseeing brand strategy rather than managing. “Now, I can be creative and have far more freedom.”
So, a better job no longer means the top job, but a job that fits better for you. It’s what Gabrielle sees as millennial feminism. “It used to be that women felt pressure to prove they work like the guys – millennial feminism embraces the fact that each individual is different, and celebrates how our priorities change through life,” she explains. “Being a boss is about running your life, rather than having your life run you.”
When the accepted model has always been the ladder, admitting that you want to get off halfway can still provoke negativity. “When I turned down a higher position, a friend accused me of ‘betraying the sisterhood’ by taking a step back,” admits Lucie, 27, who works in business consulting. Hilary, a 38-year-old teacher, faced similar criticism for her decision to make side steps, moving to Australia (where she tripled her pay cheque for the same level of work) and now writing learning programmes for charities. “I’ve been made to feel like a bad feminist for admitting to being a stay-at-home mum and for not wanting to be the boss,” she says. “We need to do what makes us happy – there’s nothing more feminist than taking charge of your life.”
For some of us, happiness does come at the top, as anyone who is – or has had – a truly inspiring and smart boss can testify. But your aspirations aren’t less significant if your face isn’t squished against the glass ceiling. I’m not typing this from a corner office, but from the corner of my living room. My main management duty is my fridge. I am still a writer. My title might be at 50%, but my heart is at 100%.
Your halfway worries answered by Karen Dillon, former editor of Harvard Business Review
Fear 1 “My line manager is disappointed in me”Say, “I am committed and I want to develop, just maybe not in the way you’re imagining.” Managers like to invest in people who can grow, but that doesn’t mean there’s only one way to grow.
Fear 2 “I like working solo, and worry I’m not a company player”
Prevent disconnection by scheduling time to ask what your colleagues are working on. Show interest and update them on projects. Working harder to stay connected goes a long way.
Fear 3 “My income’s stalled”Learn ‘stretch skills’. Every six months, pick a new skill that will make you more marketable and enquire about opportunities. Don’t assume that the money will stop, but demonstrate your value to the organisation every week, month and year.