Adapting career goals to life's ever-changing landscape

6:30am, 15th April 2018

Aberdeen Maternity Hospital. I haven’t slept for 48 hours and we’re being rushed to the operating theatre. Problem with heartbeat. Emergency C-Section ordered. Panic and worry ensue as nine months of anticipation all come down to this very moment. Will everything be ok? I smile at Becca and we hold hands both feigning confidence. I feel sick; must stay strong.

7:11am, silence. Five seconds pass which feels like five hours. A loud cry fills the room and William Ferguson is born. My life changes forever. Everything is ok - he's healthy.

However, I immediately knew that I had to make some changes to my life. I knew that the career journey I was on, and more specifically the job I was doing, wasn’t in alignment with how I wanted to spend my time, both in the present and also into the future.

But more about my own journey later.

I’d actually like to start today’s blog by asking you a question…

“Are you in the right job for you at this very moment, or do you think you could be happier by finding a different job/company/career?”

Our careers often serve as a compass, guiding us towards our goals and aspirations. Whether we're fresh out of school or seasoned professionals, our career ambitions often evolve over time shaped by our experiences, societal changes, and personal growth. As the landscape of work continues to shift, it's important to understand how career goals vary across different life stages and generations.

Having spent the past 18 years supporting accountants across Aberdeen with their careers, I’ve seen first-hand how ambitions and goals can change over time. What’s important to us obviously varies from person to person, but there tends to be several key themes during each stage and phase of our lives.

What (many) people want and strive for in their 20s

Your 20s are often a time of exploration and self-discovery. Fresh graduates often enter the workforce with a hunger for experience and a desire to find their passion. Career goals at this stage typically revolve around gaining valuable skills, building a professional network, and carving out a path towards success. Long hours and an active social life tend to be the norm, and for accountants this is often in parallel to studying for exams (ICAS/ACCA/CIMA). It’s no wonder that for many people as they get closer to their 30th birthday, burn-out and stress can alter their goals and ambitions.

At the same time, rapid career progression and earning a higher level of income can be intoxicating, not to mention a great deal of fun! Working your way up can be deeply satisfying, and I know I thoroughly enjoyed the cut and thrust during this phase of my own career. Looking back, there is very little I would change.

However, Millennials and Gen Z individuals in particular, are often now prioritising work-life balance, meaningful work, and opportunities for personal growth above all else. They are more likely to pursue flexible work arrangements and prioritise values alignment when choosing employers. They’ve often seen their parents work in careers that have provided them with stability but very little satisfaction, and for the first time they are taking a stand to say a big fat NO to this, rejecting the previous norms. And who can blame them, really? The conversations I am now having with this age group are markedly different to many that I had 10 years ago.

Career Goals in your 30s: advancement and stability

As individuals transition into their 30s, the focus often shifts towards achieving stability whilst advancing in their careers. Many professionals seek opportunities for growth, whether through promotions, higher salaries, or taking on leadership roles. For many, this will include taking on their first managerial position where they are now ultimately responsible for people. Unfortunately, there is often a complete lack of training at this stage, which can cause serious problems. I know this only too well having had no training when I first became a manager, and I see the ramifications of this daily through my own job.

The pressure to climb the corporate ladder and to establish financial security can become more pronounced at this stage, and many people will also choose to start a family around this time. And here is the key challenge for many finance professionals in their 30s who decide to have kids. Balancing career advancement (which often means more responsibility and long hours), with looking after a young family can be incredibly hard. Been there, got the t-shirt, and I speak to many of you on a weekly basis who are also trying to navigate this.

Baby Boomers may have been more inclined to prioritise job stability and long-term tenure with a single employer, while younger generations may be more open to job hopping in search of better opportunities. Ten to twenty years with the same employer has made way to people moving every couple of years, not to mention the rise of the gig economy, remote work, and interim consultancy arrangement. These factors have massively altered the landscape for professionals at this stage of their career journey.

Reevaluating goals in your 40s: Balancing ambition and personal life

For many, your 40s mark a period of reflection and recalibration. As personal responsibilities grow, professionals often find themselves balancing career ambitions with family commitments and personal fulfilment. The stress of looking after kids, whilst starting to look after ageing parents, can be particularly stressful. Youthful exuberance, large goals, and big ambitions are often tempered by realism and pragmatism. Dare I say, many people regret career choices around this time, but feel stuck due to high mortgage payments and financial commitments.

Some may choose to pivot their careers entirely, pursuing passions or seeking greater work-life balance. The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified these considerations, prompting many to reassess their priorities and explore alternative career paths that offer more flexibility and fulfilment.

For others, this decade could be marked by significant career achievement. C-suite job opportunities, autonomy, stature, and a real opportunity to drive performance can provide a deep sense of fulfilment and job satisfaction. Earning’s can rise exponentially as large bonus scheme and LTIPs pay out.

Fulfilment in your 50s: Pursuing mastery and legacy

By the time individuals reach their 50s, many prioritise fulfilment and leaving a lasting impact. Some may choose to mentor the next generation of professionals, while others may pursue entrepreneurial ventures or philanthropic endeavours. The desire to create a legacy becomes more pronounced for some, as individuals seek to make meaningful contributions to their communities and industries. Generational differences may manifest in the form of varying attitudes towards retirement, with Baby Boomers more likely to embrace traditional retirement while younger generations opt for phased or flexible retirement arrangements.

Generational perspectives: Baby Boomers to Gen Z

Each generation brings its unique perspective and priorities to the table when it comes to career aspirations. Baby Boomers, shaped by post-war prosperity and economic stability, typically prioritised job security and loyalty to their employers. As we’ve seen above, Millennials, on the other hand, value autonomy, purpose-driven work, and opportunities for continuous learning. Gen Z, the digital natives of the workforce, also seek authenticity, diversity, and opportunities for career advancement. The COVID-19 pandemic has also accelerated trends such as remote work, social and societal conscious, and digital transformation, further shaping the expectations and preferences of younger generations in the workplace.

Remote work in particular, once seen as a perk, became the new norm for many people, blurring the lines between work and personal life. Professionals have had to adapt to virtual collaboration tools, remote hiring processes, and the challenges of maintaining work-life balance in a remote environment. The pandemic underscored the importance of resilience, adaptability, and digital skills in navigating the evolving landscape of work.

This radically changes how employers will need to rethink recruitment campaigns, policies, procedures, and HR practices to ensure that they remain current (and attractive) to this burgeoning cohort of employees.

Navigating career transitions: From employee to manager

Becoming a manager is often seen as a significant milestone in one's career journey. However, it's not uncommon for individuals to realise that the new role may not align with their expectations or strengths. The transition from individual contributor to manager requires a shift in mindset and skill set, from focusing on tasks to leading teams and driving results. It's essential for aspiring managers to assess their motivations, seek mentorship, and invest in leadership development to succeed in their new roles. For those who discover that management is not the right fit, are there opportunities to explore alternative career paths, such as individual contributor roles or pursuing entrepreneurial ventures?

The top engineer who becomes engineering manager. The exceptional accountant promoted into a team lead role; we all know examples where this massively backfires, because the role of a manager is sometimes the exact opposite of the role that got them there in the first place.

It’s imperative that you ask yourself what you really want, and to not be dragged into a role that doesn’t suit, simply because it’s the most logical way for you to progress.

So…what did I realise and what action did I take back in 2018?

I sold my share in the business with the view to taking 12 months off to gain perspective on what I (and we as a family) wanted the next chapter of our lives to look like. With my son being so young we used this incredibly rare opportunity to travel to new places – Canary Islands, Barcelona, the Algarve, and the Italian Lakes.

I was no longer “Andrew the recruiter” tied to an identity I had worn for the previous 13 years, devoid of an inbox and stripped of my previous routine. I was able to find out who I really was and how I wanted to spend my days.

Firstly, one of my greatest learnings was that although I gained a great deal of satisfaction out of training and developing people, I really didn’t enjoy many of the other aspects of people management. My career journey had seen me managing larger and larger teams, without truly asking myself if that’s what I really wanted.

I also realised that I was far more creative than I had previously thought, bursting with new ideas regarding customer experience and service. I found a real desire to write, penning numerous blogs and articles that I didn’t know I had in me. Perhaps most importantly, I realised I needed full control to call the shots; having agency over my time was another non-negotiable that became very clear to me during my break.

I needed the autonomy to make mistakes, to falter, but to also grow and to develop. An entrepreneurial spirit ignited that I simply didn’t know I had previously. Five years on and my pivot has been one of the best decisions of my life so far. As I tell everyone I support through tricky, emotional career moves; you will never be 100% sure that your are making the right choice, but by simply making the choice and then going all in, at least you are taking action. It’s the paralysing fear of the unknown that holds most of us back.

So what does this mean for you?

Am I saying we should all quit or jobs, take time off, and change our career? No, not at all.

Career aspirations are deeply personal and evolve over time, shaped by our experiences, values, and changing external factors. As we’ve seen, these often follow a well trodden path as we move through each stage of our lives. By understanding your different goals and priorities that drive you at different stages, I’m a firm believer that you can live a life closely aligned to who you are.

And if you’re struggling with any of this…I’d love to help.