Scaling the “corporate ladder” has been the de facto standard for how careers are built since the start of the industrial revolution more than a century ago. But organizational hierarchy isn’t what it used to be—nor is the workforce. In the ladder world, work was relatively routine and repetitive. There was little gender or generational diversity. Employees were more similar than dissimilar, with family structures built around the single-income earner. A confluence of market and demographic forces, however, has compressed hierarchies, removed rungs from the ladder, and reduced the pool of workers willing to climb it in recent years. The motivations of people in the changing world of work are as varied as the diversity of their generational backgrounds, cultures, family structures and experiences. Vital workers now come in all shapes and sizes. Careers are more likely to zig-zag moving up, down, diagonally and across than shooting straight up.
These changes share an acknowledgement that traditional beliefs no longer hold: The workforce is not homogeneous nor does it share one-size-fits-all career aspirations. No one knows this better than older workers who have lived through these seismic revolutions. In 1960, life expectancy was under 70 in America. Today, average life expectancy in the U.S. is just under 79. As people are living longer, they’re also working longer. The percentage of people 65 and older in the labor force, for instance, increased by a third from 1990 to 2010; they now make up 16 percent of the American workforce (i). What’s more, the Urban Institute predicts workers 50 years and older will account for 35 percent of the labor force by 2019.
We’ve traded in the rivets of the industrial age for the digits of the digital age. It’s now time to metaphorically dismantle the ladder in favor of a corporate lattice, a more agile and flexible model better suited for how today’s more varied ways work gets done and careers are grown. In mathematics, a lattice is a three-dimensional structure extending infinitely in any direction. In the real world, lattice structures are evident everywhere from a wooden garden trellis to the Eiffel Tower’s metalwork to the matrix structures and networks that mark the modern corporation. Lattice career paths provide living platforms for mobility, making it possible to structure work, build careers and foster participation in collaborative and customized ways.
People over 50 are exemplars of the benefits of lattice careers. They are the keepers of enduring institutional knowledge, yet they are as likely to be looking for flexible options that require less time in the office as they are gunning for the next rung. They have critical skills and experience that organizations desperately need, yet, they want to apply their expertise in new ways. Workplaces that enable this type of flexibility, for professionals of all ages, are finding that they are standing out. Companies have taken notice of this new world. Of Fortune’s 2011 “100 Best Companies to Work For,” 82 percent offer telecommuting and other means of providing workplace flexibility (ii). The Corporate Lattice is a contemporary metaphor for this new world of work.
The lattice is a much closer depiction of what today’s older—and younger—workers want and need from organizations. Many professionals are finding they’re able to traverse a variety of value-adding roles at one organization; they may make lateral moves within the same company depending on what life stages they’re at – times when they’re caring for small children or aging parents may mean slowing or “dialing down” at work. At other times, they may wish to “dial up” with emphatic career focus to achieve new heights. Those who are reaching retirement age but don’t yet want to join the ranks of the fully retired may choose to “dial” differently as well.
Companies like CVS have put in place lattice-like models to help them and their workers to successfully fit work-into-life-and-life-into-work over time. In the early 1990s, about 7 percent of CVS employees were 50 or older, but by 2007 that number had multiplied to 19 percent. CVS responded by designing a number of programs that reflect the Corporate Lattice ethos (iii). First, it offered health insurance to its part-time employees and other perks; then it also created systemic changes such as more breaks built into the day and its innovative and imaginative Snowbird Program. On a seasonal basis, the Snowbird Program allows older employees to transfer from northern stores to CVS/pharmacy locations in warmer locales to the south. With this, CVS found a means to increase retention of older employees by meeting their career-life needs.
At the heart of the lattice organization is a customized workplace that enables individuals to stay productive and contribute throughout changes in their lives. Just as importantly, our economy stands to benefit from giving experienced workers options to continue to contribute to the workplace, unlocking economic value for all.
About the author
Cathy Benko is renowned for being among the first to design and implement a systemic response to the changing world of work. She is a widely renowned thought leader and authority on talent strategies and transformational change to achieve exceptional results. Her signature corporate lattice™ framework is internationally recognized as a model for how careers are built, work gets done, and organizational collaboration is fostered in the 21st century. Cathy holds dual roles as Deloitte’s talent game-changer and leader of Deloitte’s corporate citizenship agenda, driving the firm’s collective societal impact.
Her current roles tap into skills honed in her prior positions, including chief talent officer, lead client service partner, high technology industry sector leader, and national managing director of Deloitte’s award-winning Women’s Initiative. As Deloitte’s first Chief Talent Officer she was responsible for setting and implementing the Talent strategy to attract, develop, and advance the highly skilled and increasingly diverse workforce of the world’s largest privately-owned professional services firm.
Cathy is a U.S. patent-holder and best-selling author of three books including The Corporate Lattice (Harvard 2010), Mass Career Customization (Harvard 2007), and Connecting the Dots (Harvard 2003). She has been recognized for her professional achievements including Consulting Magazine’s “25 Most Influential Consultants” and “Frontline Leader” recognitions, and its inaugural “Leadership Achievement Award” for Women Leaders in Consulting. She earned an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School and a B.S. from Ramapo College of New Jersey, which recently recognized her with its Distinguished Citizenship Award.
Cathy lives in Northern California with her husband and two children, although she remains a “Jersey Girl” at heart. A native of Nutley, NJ, she was recently inducted into the township’s Hall of Fame.
Look for her @cbenko and her latest article at DUPress.