Spiral Careers Support the 21st Century Workplace

By Martin Elliot Jaffe

Roger T. is a 56 year old chief financial officer with an MBA and 27 years of financial services management in organizations focused on steel manufacturing operations. That is until December when he was right sized, downsized, or reengineered.

Marcus L. is a 59 year old middle school science teacher and debate coach with 33 years of teaching experience, awards for curriculum design and state championship debate teams, who was just informed that the failure of a levy after four attempts will result in the elimination of his position next fall.


These composites from my current client base inspired me to look back to David K Foot's 2000 book, Boom Bust And Echo: Profiting From The Demographic Shift In The 21st Century. Foot reviews three career concepts: linear, steady state, and spiral. Let's begin by examining the two that are perhaps most familiar to us as career counselors and to our clients.

Linear and Steady State are Predictable and Traditional

Right out of high school Robert T. got a job as a shipping and receiving clerk. He worked effectively, kept the shipping dock swept up and began college with the help of the company tuition assistance plan. Seven years later he graduated and became a junior accountant, developed expertise at cost accounting, financial projections, and found collegial relationships with peers and supervisors. He enrolled in an MBA program, became chief financial analyst at a young age and began a stellar rise to CFO. He was on his way to becoming a high level executive.

Marcus L. is a good example of the steady state career: His master's degree in biology and his constant study of science and teaching techniques focused on depth and love of his field. He loves debate coaching, teaching and the respect from faculty for his expertise. Thirty three years of wisdom and expertise in a rich steady state career worked for Marcus up to now.

Spiral Career Path Allows for Spontaneity and Openness

The spiral career concept particularly meets the needs of clients age 50+, who were displaced from organizations where linear and steady state careers used to be the dominant model. Kenneth Brousseau, a management educator and principal of Decision Dynamics , a management consulting firm provided a crisp definition of the spiral career concept.

"The spiral career is characterized by major periodic shifts into new fields or occupations every 5-10 years involving development of new skills and skill diversity."

This definition easily fits this next case:

My client, Yoman, 42, whose vision and intuition, as well as his willingness to make radical changes and to view career as a revolving kaleidoscope, has fueled his dreams.

After earning an undergraduate degree in political science Yoman decided that his love of research and idea sharing would be well utilized as a librarian. After earning his MLS and working four years at the social science reference desk at Cleveland State, Yoman had a life changing flash. He writes,"My part time work at Cafe Del Sol and my friends love of my cilantro lime coconut shrimp have (now) led me to apply to the Culinary Institute of America." Yoman graduated with honors and after six years as filet chef, specializing in salmon, he realized one day, "There is something in this world beyond filleting salmon, I shall go to Alaska and be a salmon fisherman, where real men engage in a primal struggle with fish , not filets."

Last time I heard fromYoman he wrote, "After six years on a fishing boat I have soggy lungs and leaky joints and if this ship stops tilting to starboard I'm going to head to my cabin and work on my application for Web Design classes starting next summer in Nome."

In the vignettes describing the spiral career vision, I hope I have conveyed the creativity, experimentation and free wheeling life/work vistas opened to those rare and courageous individuals who follow their hearts, souls and minds to what Thoreau might have termed the beat of a different drummer. Is the spiral career model a viable option for our midlife career changers who are used to stable organizational structures? Here are three final points to consider making new goals as career counselors in the 21st century:

  • Expand our career visioning and transition work beyond our usual expertise and wisdom to fit a new world of flattened organizational pyramids, contingency employment, and elimination of pension plans.
  • Revise our 20th century training and world view based on stable organizations, long term planning for a career path and integration of organizational and personal needs.
  • Reaffirm our awareness that career change is difficult and career development truly is for a lifetime.



Martin Elliot Jaffe, MCC, is currently in private practice as WORK/LIFE CONCEPTS, working primarily with adults in mid-life transition and baby boomers engaging in pre-retirement/re-careering for worklife at age 55 and beyond. Prior to his own retirement from public sector employment, Martin was the manager of InfoPLACE, the comprehensive adult career counseling program of the Cuyahoga County Public Library (Ohio) for 15 years. Martin is the primary or contributing researcher/author of three national assessments for adults: ABLE (Adult Balanced Life Enhancement), CACTI (Core Adult Career Transition Inventory), and ARROW (Adult Reinvestment for Retirement/Occupational Well being). Martin has his Masters in Adult Learning and Development from Cleveland State Universityand his Masters in Library Science from Case Western Reserve University. He has been a career counselor for 24 years earning the NCC, NCCC, DCFI and MCC credentials.

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