Image used for representation
Image used for representation

Dealing with career decline

Having a bad day or feeling overwhelmed towards the end of a quarter doesn’t necessarily mean your career is declining.

According to a World Economic Forum report, 85 per cent of the jobs that will exist in 2030 have not yet been created. At the same time, many of the jobs that exist today are being automated. The perpetual sense of anxiety experienced by young people is understandable and there doesn’t seem to be a short-term fix. Even though I am optimistic about the future of work and the new spectrum of AI-enabled professional opportunities, I am concerned about how people will deal with career transitions, especially when they feel their careers are plateauing or declining.

Having a bad day or feeling overwhelmed towards the end of a quarter doesn’t necessarily mean your career is declining. Career decline becomes clear in the medium-to long-term where despite all efforts, results aren’t commensurate with your former self. You feel less energised to try new things and aren’t able to visualise a future you can be proud of or satisfied with.

Analysis by Arthur Brooks suggests that professional skills and abilities decline much earlier than most people expect. Creativity, productivity and career success tend to peak around 20 years after starting a career, then decline afterwards. For scientists and innovators, the peak is even earlier. I believe that as AI becomes more mainstream, career peaks will happen earlier. This means the subsequent decline will be more severe, making it harder to manage.

One way to deal with it is a technique called fear-setting. Its premise is that by vividly envisioning and planning for the worst-case scenarios, we can overcome paralysis, see our fears as less intimidating, and take the actions most critical for growth and success. This is helpful even for people who are doing well at work. We shouldn’t worry about problems when they happen but rather pre-think them.

So if career decline is inevitable, we should prepare in advance to mitigate it. Common advice when we are in a career rut includes working hard and learning new skills. Nothing wrong with that, but once you have gone through a round of fear-setting, ask this question: If I were starting my life all over again, what would I do?

The interesting bit about this question is that it isn’t hypothetical. Most of us will have to reinvent our professional lives multiple times over. This puts career decline in its proper perspective. If you feel you aren’t able to do as well as you used to, one option is to try something new and do what you have always been curious about. This way you aren’t worse off than your former self, but rather you are engaged in sculpting a new identity. You acknowledge that just because you are not at your peak in your current profession, there is no reason why you can’t be at your peak at something different.

LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman often talks about the “tours of duty” concept derived from the military where soldiers commit to a specific mission for a set time frame. In a corporate context, it involves employees and employers agreeing on a mission that typically lasts two-four years. This mission has clear objectives and expected outcomes that align with the company’s goals and the employee’s career aspirations. At the end of the tour, both parties can reassess and decide whether to renew the commitment, adjust the mission, or part ways amicably.

Instead of fixating on one job or one industry for the rest of your life, think of your work life as multiple tours of duty where you go all in for a period of time, reach as far as you can, rethink, recalibrate and move forward. Take Colonel Sanders as an example. He tried several jobs including working as an army mule tender, railroad worker, and filling station operator. His career was very much in decline when he decided to try something completely new. In the 1930s, Colonel Sanders started cooking and serving food for hungry travellers who visited his service station in Corbin, Kentucky. His fried chicken with its special seasoning blend became extremely popular. At the age of 65, he founded KFC which went on to become one of the world’s most popular fast-food restaurants.

Colonel Sanders’ success is of course an edge case. Many of us may not get to that level, but his principle of trying to achieve a different peak in the midst of his career decline offers a precious lesson to all of us.

Utkarsh Amitabh

CEO, Network Capital; Chevening Fellow, University of Oxford

Posts on X: @utkarsh_amitabh

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