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Is it the end of the linear career? A look at nonlinear careers and the future of hiring


If you had to draw a picture of a career, you’d probably draw something that looks like a path.

You start on this path when you enter the workforce in your late teens or early twenties, and after a short period of exploring, you settle into a vocation.

You then progress along the path linearly, developing leadership skills you apply to successive managerial roles until you retire. 

That’s what careers have looked like in the past – or at least, what we aspired for them to look like. But in the age of the gig economy and the Great Reshuffle, things are changing. 

More people are opting to explore their options for longer or switch up their careers entirely.

But is this a temporary change or the end of the linear career? 

In this blog, we explore the evidence supporting nonlinear careers, the shifts that have brought us to this point, and how the rise of nonlinear careers should affect your hiring.

What does the “end of the linear career” mean?

The end of the linear career refers to the rise in multidirectional careers.

These are careers where individuals do not progress up the ladder in one role or function, attaining increasing seniority as they go, but instead make lateral moves or even go “backward.”

An example is someone who “zigzags” within one industry – for instance, taking up a role as manager at one firm after being a director at another to gain experience in a different facet of the business.

At the other end of the spectrum, we could see people making career moves like:

  • Retraining 

  • Changing function

  • Switching industry 

  • Starting their own business

But are multidirectional careers becoming more common?

Linear vs non-linear careers

A closer look at nonlinear careers: Are they becoming the norm?

We are living in a time of increased employee turnover. 50.5M people in the US quit their jobs in 2022, almost 3 million more than in 2021.

Median tenures are also getting shorter on average. However, this effect is obvious in certain age groups and seniority levels.

High turnover is concentrated among Millennials

Senior professionals and older workers have longer median tenures, with managers and professionals reporting median tenures of 5.5 years at their current companies.

Workers aged 65 or older have an average job tenure of 10.3 years. Shorter tenures are famously common amongst Millennials (people born between 1981 and 1996).

The median tenure of workers aged 25 to 34 is the same as that of workers in service occupations – a sector we typically associate with high turnover – at just 3.2 years.[1]

Indeed, Millennials have been dubbed the “job-hopping generation” after a 2012 survey found that 91% expected to stay in their jobs for less than three years. 

This situation means they would have 15-20 jobs throughout their working lives – assuming that this rate of change remained the same.[2] 

Although this could seem like a big assumption, recent data suggest that the trend is holding true even 10 years later.

Gallup research from 2022 revealed that 21% of Millennials changed roles in the past year – that’s more than three times the number reported for members of other generations. This high level of turnover is estimated to cost the US economy $30.5b each year.

As the largest generation in the US workforce, this job-hopping mentality among Millennials is useful to forecast the end of the linear career.[3]

However, there is one major issue with this line of thinking.

A job change doesn’t necessarily mean a career switch

The truth is that a job change is not in itself evidence of a nonlinear career move. 

A candidate could job-hop several times while staying on the same linear career path, and although national statistics offices record job turnover data, information on career shifts is harder to come by.

From the available career change data, it is difficult to tell whether nonlinear careers are a generational trend or the norm once workers reach their mid-career.

One survey found that nearly half (49%) of workers said they had undertaken a career shift around the age of 39, on average.

It could be that Millennials are the generation most likely to switch careers simply because they are the generation that is mid-career and feeling an itch for something new.

Indeed, the data in our 2022 State of Skills-Based Hiring Report shows that most workers who sought a career change in the past year were in the Millennial age bracket.

There are difficulties in collecting industry data

It is also hard to judge the status of nonlinear careers in particular roles and industries.

By nature, career changes can take place between industries – particularly in a skills-based hiring landscape where you hire candidates for their potential more than their job experience.

We can speculate that some industries, like the creative industries, are more open to career switchers.

It is less common for creative roles like designers to require extensive formal training and there is already increased flexibility in these industries owing to their participation in the gig economy.

We can also speculate that other industries are less susceptible. Some roles, such as healthcare workers and accounting professionals, require extensive technical training.

Our State of Skills-Based Hiring Report corroborates this, finding that the most popular industries for career switchers to move into were: 

  1. Human resources (12.9%)

  2. Finance and accounting (11.3%)

  3. Customer service (10.9%)

  4. IT (10.7%)

  5. Data science and analytics (8.9%)

  6. Engineering (8.9%) 

The least popular role to switch into was the legal profession, which requires extensive training.

With the above discussion in mind, we can say that the linear career is unlikely to disappear soon, but there is evidence to suggest that nonlinear careers are on the rise in the current work landscape and could be here to stay. 

But where have these trends come from in the first place? The way we see it, there are a few key factors.

5 reasons we’re shifting away from linear careers

5 reasons we're shifting away from linear careers

Although ample data illuminating the rise of nonlinear careers is scarce, many shifts in the world of work seem to be pointing toward a future of multidirectional careers. 

Here are the five reasons the world of work is moving away from the linear career path.

1. People are working longer 

The first factor influencing the increase in career switching is that we are living longer. Between 1970 and 2022, the life expectancy for men increased by nine years and that of women by eight years.

Retirement age is creeping upward around the world to accommodate this longer life expectancy. In 2020, women retired at an average age of 63.4 and men at 64.2. 

By contrast, assuming individuals enter the labor market at age 22, a woman starting her working life in 2020 is predicted to retire at 65.5 – for men, this is even later, at 66.1. 

As the years go on, the retirement age could rise even higher.

It is unreasonable to expect most people to stay on the linear career path they pick out as young adults until they are in their late 60s.

It makes sense, therefore, that more workers are aware of the available options and switch to different careers.

2. The employment market is volatile

Another factor driving nonlinear careers is the volatility in the employment market in recent years owing to the coronavirus pandemic and the fallout of the war in Ukraine. 

Initially, there was a spike in unemployment, with the number of unemployed people in the US rising higher in three months of the pandemic than in two years of the Great Recession.

When unemployment spikes, it is common for the number of people looking to switch careers to spike, too – looking for work in other, perhaps less troubled, industries. 

Many professionals choose to achieve this switch by going to business school, particularly in the United States.

We can see this in the motivations reported by business school applicants. Nearly half of them were looking to switch careers in 2010 but their numbers dropped off as the market stabilized.[4]

Career switching – at least through the business education route – may also be particularly rampant in certain economies. 

Almost half of business school candidates from the United States reported a desire to switch careers in 2022. This level was similar to what came before the pandemic and the Great Resignation

However, it was significantly higher than the global average.

The uncertainty of the pandemic caused the employed and unemployed alike to rethink their career goals. 

This uncertainty led to the Great Resignation and Great Reshuffle, causing widespread work shortages because businesses struggled to find enough skilled workers to fill their open roles.

In 2022, global talent shortages reached a 16-year-high as three in four employers reported difficulty finding talent.[5]

Employers are now operating in a candidate’s market, where applicants have more work choices and more bargaining power, lowering the barriers to switching careers.

3. Our expectations of the workplace have changed

The pandemic also altered many workers’ perceptions of what a workplace and a career should provide. 

In the sudden, widespread adoption of remote working practices, many employees recognized how much more inclusive their workplaces could be. 

They saw flexibility benefiting working parents, disabled employees, and the average employee’s work-life balance.

As a result, employees are now looking for what Gartner calls the “Human Deal” – a job that provides:

  1. Deeper connections with their colleagues, friends, and family

  2. Flexibility in all aspects of work, not just offering remote options

  3. Personal growth, with employers helping individuals grow as people as well as professionals

  4. Holistic wellbeing, taking in employees’ health and happiness in and out of the workplace

  5. A sense of true purpose in the work they do 

The human deal framework - Gartner

No longer content to prioritize work for decades in the hope of a happy retirement that is only getting further away, more people are seeking a work-life balance in which their work forms part of their wellbeing.

They also expect an investment in wellbeing, skills, and a strong company culture. 

In 2021, 86% of jobseekers said that company culture matters when they’re evaluating a workplace.

Meanwhile, upskilling initiatives are becoming increasingly important for job considerations, with 65% of workers saying they are on their list.[6] 

Access to upskilling is also an increasingly important incentive for employees to stay in their roles. 

One study reported that a lack of learning and development opportunities is why people leave their jobs.

Workers are demanding a more personalized, flexible career experience where employers value their unique strengths and personalities.

This experience lends itself to a nonlinear career path as workers pursue growth.

4. Focus is shifting to skills

Employees aren’t the only ones pushing for more frequent career switching. The demand for skills-based hiring among employers is also working to promote nonlinear careers.

Our State of Skills-Based Hiring report shows that 76% of businesses already use skills-based hiring because traditional recruiting is ineffective.

Prehire work experience is a poor predictor of how job applicants perform during training and in the job itself. 

It is also not a good predictor of retention.

Another factor that has limited the candidates’ ability to switch careers is the prior insistence on degrees in hiring.

Like years of experience, having a degree has proven to be a poor indicator of a candidate’s skill level.

An analysis of 26 million job postings revealed that college graduates were less engaged at work and had a higher turnover rate than their non-college-educated counterparts.[7] 

For this reason, many employers are ditching degree requirements in what has been dubbed the “degree reset.” 

Between 2017 and 2019, 46% of middle-skill and 31% of high-skill jobs underwent degree resets. 

Moreover, the US government now advises departments to scrap degree requirements for IT professionals and any roles that don’t require licenses.

By disregarding a candidate’s history and instead focusing on the skills they can bring to your organization, skills-based hiring not only broadens your talent pool but also opens you – and your employees – to nonlinear careers.

5. Skills requirements are ever-evolving

The fact is that experience, even if it was a strong predictor of job performance, would still lose currency in today’s business landscape where skills have a shorter and shorter shelf life.

In 2020, business leaders predicted around 40% of their employees would require reskilling and studies show that nearly 60% of the workers already need new skills.[8]

Shockingly, only 17% of employers believe that they can anticipate their future skills needs, and only 16% are planning to invest in skills training for employees in the next three years. 

We can help here. The biggest change on the horizon is that soft skills like communication are becoming even more relevant.

By 2030, soft skill-intensive occupations will comprise two-thirds of all jobs – that’s more than twice the growth rate of roles in other occupations.[9]

All of this points to the importance of looking at the potential and transferable skills of candidates and employees and investing in upskilling and reskilling initiatives.

These initiatives significantly contribute to the shift toward nonlinear careers.

If our data is anything to go by – plus the fact that you’re reading this blog in the first place – you could already be embracing skills-based hiring and adapting to the age of nonlinear careers. 

What else can you do to prepare?

How can organizations adapt to the age of multidirectional careers?

We’ll discuss specific strategies to prepare for the age of nonlinear careers below. 

Before that, what are the practices and policies that companies should have in place to thrive in a nonlinear career landscape?

The first one is a deliberate approach to tackle discrimination in hiring.

Tackling discrimination means not just eliminating discrimination along demographic lines like race and gender but also preventing age discrimination and bias against candidates who are skilled through alternative routes (STARs).

A skills-based hiring approach can help, but you must adopt it as part of an overall paradigm shift toward what futurist April Rinne called a “flux mindset.”

The flux mindset promotes an agile response to change, one facet of which is looking at your employees’ careers as portfolios rather than a linear path.

Considering careers portfolios means going against well-worn habits like enabling employees to be open with you about their career plans, even if that could take them out of your organization. 

Instead of treating past employees as “out of sight, out of mind,” you should interact with them similarly to how colleges interact with alumni. 

Keep in contact with talented individuals online and keep them abreast of opportunities to rejoin you as a boomerang employee.

To do this, Harvard researchers recommend beginning offboarding programs as soon as you make a hire.

Let employees know that resources are available for them to build their careers in and out of your organization, and keep up this conversation throughout their tenure.[10]

An example of this policy in practice is Deloitte. The Deloitte Alumni Network offers a platform for past employees to connect and access resources and job opportunities with ex-colleagues, current employees, and other alumni.

3 best practices for hiring and developing employees pursuing non-linear careers

Now that you know the factors influencing the rise of nonlinear careers and some of the broad changes you must make to your practices, it’s time to talk about specific strategies.

Here are the three best practices we recommend for hiring and developing employees after the end of the linear career.

3 best practices for hiring and developing employees after the end of the linear career: Summary table 

Are you struggling to hire for a new role and want to widen your applicant pool? 

Or dealing with a disengaged workforce and you want to invigorate quickly? 

Don’t worry – here’s the shortcut version.

1. Replace outdated screening tools with skills testing

In a hiring landscape increasingly dominated by nonlinear career paths, the resume looks like a relic of a bygone era.

After all, someone switching careers could have no directly relevant professional experience but all the transferable skills needed to thrive. 

It’s also simply not an accurate tool for hiring, and the data supports this. One of the main weaknesses of resumes is that they enable unconscious bias to run riot during your screening process. 

Studies have shown that applicants with White-sounding names are 9% more likely than those with Black-sounding names to receive responses from employers, even when they submitted the same applications.

Skills testing, on the other hand, offers a data-backed basis for decision-making, and it enables you to throw out often-irrelevant screening criteria like: 

  • Degree requirements 

  • Years of experience 

  • Specific resume keywords

Best practice for hiring and developing employees’ nonlinear careers

Example actions

Ditch the outdated screening tools

Replace resume evaluation with pre-interview skills testing.

Conduct a skills gap analysis to target missing skills

Don’t just rely on old job ads to list key skills. Test your employees to find the non-essential and soft skills in the shortest supply.

Use an internal talent marketplace to promote internal mobility

Log all new employees’ skill test data in a spreadsheet to keep track of the skills available in your workforce.

Instead, it enables employers to directly test candidates’ skills and compare and rank them automatically. 

Skills testing is not only quicker and easier but also improves accuracy throughout the hiring process.

Hiring managers can use test scores to check and support their own decisions during interviews because studies have shown implicit bias training isn’t enough.

For example, Yale University research found that even when interviewers received training on objective hiring, both male and female scientists still skewed toward hiring men.[11]

By contrast, a study of more than 2,000 successful job applications showed that skills-based hiring increased the number of women hired into senior roles by almost 70%. 

2. Conduct a skills gap analysis to target missing skills 

Once you’ve widened your talent pool by throwing out irrelevant screening criteria, you can hone in on more useful attributes of candidates.

The best way to do this is by using skills testing to conduct a skills gap analysis of your existing teams, identifying the skills in short supply.

These skills could not necessarily be the skills you expect or would put in the job ad.

For instance, any recruiter knows that a social media manager needs to be competent in using Facebook ads.

However, only a skills gap analysis can reveal that your current team is short on important soft skills like communication or project management, which you could prioritize while hiring. 

Most importantly, you can use skills testing as part of a holistic hiring process, which looks not just at a candidate’s fit for a specific role but at their overall alignment with the values and goals of your business.

This process means using skills assessment tools not only to address internal skills gaps but also to measure the motivations of candidates and whether they align with your organization and add to your culture.

3. Use an internal talent marketplace to promote internal mobility 

If your organization is big enough, an individual can change careers without having to leave your company. There are benefits to retaining this talent. 

One study by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found that employees who were promoted within three years were 70% more likely to stay on board. 

Those who made lateral moves in the business were 62% more likely to stay.

Employees who move around internally are more than three times as likely to be engaged than employees who stay in their current roles.[12]

One of the best ways to facilitate this internal mobility – especially across functional and departmental lines – is with an internal talent marketplace

An internal talent marketplace is a spreadsheet or dedicated piece of software companies can use to get an overview of the skills available within their workforce.

Once they do that, they can identify opportunities for promotion or redeployment and spot candidates for targeted skills training.

It comes in particularly handy during periods of restructuring when you need to limit talent losses to safeguard employee morale.

It can show you who in your business could have the transferable skills to bolster an understaffed team and not be made redundant.

Start by populating your internal talent marketplace with the results of the candidates’ skills tests when they join the organization and keep it up to date by routinely reassessing existing employees.

With this data input, your internal talent marketplace can help you support nonlinear career paths by identifying individuals whose skill sets overlap with other teams. 

You can also identify adjacent skills to other organizational functions. 

If these individuals wish to change careers or you identify them as potential additions to another team, you can use skills-based learning techniques to develop these skills and move them across.

An internal talent marketplace promotes nonlinear careers and helps you access the benefits of internal mobility outlined above.

Embrace skills-based methods to develop a thriving workforce after the end of the linear career

If you’re a hiring manager or employer, you probably started reading this blog a little scared that nonlinear careers were here to obliterate any consistency in your hiring methods. 

Instead, they are simply a natural consequence of the broad shifts in hiring and the world of work more generally, and they benefit your bottom line and employee wellbeing.

Skills-based hiring and development are central to accessing the benefits of nonlinear careers.

To learn more about upskilling your employees in the age of nonlinear careers, read our complete guide to employee learning and development.

If you’re in a period of restructuring or simply exploring how you can move talent around in your workforce, read our guide to workplace redeployment.

Or if you’re hiring and want to find employees who can grow with your organization and share your overall vision, use our Motivation test to hire the best.


  1. “Employee Tenure Summary”. (September 22, 2022). US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved May 05, 2023. 

  2. Meister, Jeanne. (August 14, 2012). “The Future Of Work: Job Hopping Is the ‘New Normal’ for Millennials”. Forbes. Retrieved May 05, 2023. https://www.forbes.com/sites/jeannemeister/2012/08/14/the-future-of-work-job-hopping-is-the-new-normal-for-millennials/ 

  3. Fry, Richard. (April 11, 2018). “Millennials are the largest generation in the U.S. labor force”. Pew Research Center. Retrieved May 05, 2023. https://www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2018/04/11/millennials-largest-generation-us-labor-force/ 

  4. “mba.com Prospective Students Survey Report”. (2015). Graduate Management Admission Council. Retrieved May 05, 2023. https://www.gmac.com/-/media/files/gmac/research/prospective-student-data/2015-prospective-students-report-web.pdf 

  5. “The 2022 Global Talent Shortage”. (2022). ManPowerGroup. Retrieved May 05, 2023. https://go.manpowergroup.com/hubfs/Talent%20Shortage%202022/MPG-Talent-Shortage-Infographic-2022.pdf 

  6. “The American Upskilling Study: Empowering Workers for the Jobs of Tomorrow”. (2021). Gallup. Retrieved May 05, 2023. https://www.gallup.com/analytics/354374/the-american-upskilling-study.aspx 

  7. Fuller, Joseph; Raman, Manjari. (October 2017). “Dismissed by Degrees”. Harvard Business School. Retrieved May 05, 2023. https://www.hbs.edu/managing-the-future-of-work/Documents/dismissed-by-degrees.pdf

  8. “Gartner HR Research Finds 58% of the Workforce Will Need New Skill Sets to Do Their Jobs Successfully”. (February 4, 2021). Gartner. Retrieved May 05, 2023. https://www.gartner.com/en/newsroom/press-releases/2021-02-03-gartner-hr-research-finds-fifty-eight-percent-of-the-workforce-will-need-new-skill-sets-to-do-their-jobs-successfully 

  9. O’Mahony, John; Rumbens, David. (May 2017). “Soft skills for business success”. Deloitte. Retrieved May 05, 2023. https://www2.deloitte.com/au/en/pages/economics/articles/soft-skills-business-success.html 

  10. Dachner, Alison M; Makarius, Erin E. “Turn Departing Employees into Loyal Alumni”. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved May 05, 2023. https://hbr.org/2021/03/turn-departing-employees-into-loyal-alumni 

  11. Agarwal, Pragya. (December 3, 2018). “Unconscious Bias: How It Affects Us More Than We Know”. Forbes. Retrieved May 05, 2023. https://www.forbes.com/sites/pragyaagarwaleurope/2018/12/03/unconscious-bias-how-it-affects-us-more-than-we-know/?sh=3333fe6e13e7 

  12. “Skill Building in the New World of Work”. (2021). LinkedIn Learning. Retrieved May 05, 2023. https://learning.linkedin.com/content/dam/me/business/en-us/amp/learning-solutions/images/wlr21/pdf/LinkedIn-Learning\_Workplace-Learning-Report-2021-EN-1.pdf


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