Lockstep Career Progression

Lockstep Career ProgressionKarl Ulrich Mayer describes institutional careers as the orderly flow of persons through segmented institutions. A number of scholars have pointed to occupational careers as providing the organizational blueprint for the adult life course, which begins with a period of education, followed by years of productive work (often in a series of related jobs) and then retirement.

Most age-graded labor-market policies and practices developed in the middle of the twentieth century reified a lockstep occupational career path. The lock-step imagery fostered a career mystique, touting hard work, long hours, and continuous employment as the ticket to occupational mobility and success. It also fostered a retirement mystique, “golden” years of continuous, full-time leisure as an end in itself. The resulting age-graded life course clockwork and culture legitimized the occurrence, timing, and sequencing of transitions around education, employment, and retirement, reflected in work, pension, and education policies but also in social welfare policies more broadly (Social Security and Medicare in the United States, but more forms of welfare support in Europe). Such institutionalization in the latter half of the twentieth century effectively standardized individuals’ biographical pacing, that is, the nature, timing, and sequencing of their social roles. Consider the age-graded institutionalization of education. In the United States, virtually everyone from age 6 to 16 (and increasingly to 18) is a student, enrolled in, and, ideally, attending school. This student role permeates young people’s identities, the ways others respond to them, their social location in society, and the organization of their days, weeks, and years.

Similarly, employment came to represent the quintessential adult role, providing individuals and their families with the income, status, security, and other resources (such as health insurance and pensions) essential for “the good life.” Jobs also shaped the clockwork of business, family, and social life through structured routines and timetables (for promotion, retirement, etc.), social relationships, and opportunities for productive engagement. The hierarchical structure of business and occupation paths reinforced the notion of a lockstep career progression.

In the post-World War II economic boom, retirement from paid work was similarly institutionalized. Most U.S. workers eligible for Social Security at 65 retired if they could afford to do so, rendering retirement a “natural” component of contemporary life.

This “expected” lockstep life course is so embedded in American institutions and ways of thinking that it is hard to see it as an only relatively recent, twentieth-century invention. Scholars, as well as society at large, take as “given” the idea of career paths as part of a lockstep march from (full-time) education (as preparation for one’s career) through (full-time) employment (as career progression) to (full-time) retirement (the culmination of a lifetime of hard work). The culture that developed around the lockstep clockwork considers each of these activity domains (education, employment, and retirement) to be “naturally” segmented by age, as well as separated in time and space. Americans, along with many Europeans and Asians, have come to hold a shared definition about both what the adult life course and career progression consist of and how they should unfold.

The lockstep passage from education through continuous full-time employment in a sequence of related jobs to the continuous full-time leisure of retirement—Harold Wilensky’s concept of orderly career—has become the yardstick against which occupational expectations and accomplishments are gauged. This lockstep imagery is closely aligned with the American dream of rugged individualism, of people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, of hard work “paying off” in financial success and job security, and of movement up ladders in particular occupational or organizational hierarchies or “ladder hopping” across occupations or organizations.

But the lockstep career path developed as very much a gendered path, effectively leaving out half the adult population. These taken-for-granted expectations captured the experiences only of mostly White, mostly middle-class, mostly married men in the middle of the twentieth century. They have never reflected women’s occupational and educational pathways (typically more contingent than lockstep), much less the occupational experiences of workers with little education or otherwise on the margins of the labor market. Still, in the post-World War II economic boom years, most Americans aspired to this vision of the good life, buying into the lockstep career mystique for men and the feminine mystique for women as cultural ideals, twin paths to fulfillment, even if they themselves could achieve neither. In the 1950s, most Americans had finished school, found jobs, gotten married, and become parents before age 30. The cultural template— on television, in middle-class suburbs, and in grade school readers—was the breadwinner/homemaker family, with gender dividing family and career, even as age divided the lockstep career course and commutes divided paid work from the home life. Ideas about and policies developed around the conventional lockstep career shaped the life chances and life quality of (typically male) breadwinners and their families as well as those outside this favored pathway. But note that unfettered pursuit of the lockstep career mystique was dependent on having someone else—a homemaker—manage all the nonwork details of daily living.

In the 1950s, the career mystique meshed well with the feminine mystique: Men in middle-class white-collar and unionized blue-collar jobs could focus on breadwinning because their wives did the homemaking. Then, more than 40 years ago, in The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan debunked the myth that full-time homemaking offered the only road to women’s fulfillment. Over the ensuing years, the women’s movement opened up opportunities for women to also pursue lockstep career ladders. Many of the growing numbers of women pursuing college degrees felt they could have it all, success at home and at work. Many set about trying to follow the career mystique, not instead of, but in addition to, their obligations on the domestic front.

Today, career patterns in the United States remain one-size-fits-all, with the lockstep of continuous, full-time employment taken for granted for those “serious” about their work. The clockwork of paid work still shapes the (work) day and the (work) week, as well as the lockstep career path. Workers today are expected to work long hours (often including mandatory overtime and the “choices” of professionals to work evenings and weekends), to travel, and to relocate if their employers require it, as if they had no responsibilities outside their jobs. But most workers, men and women, no longer have the luxury of a full-time homemaker to free them from family care, and most workers are married to someone who is also in the workforce. The very diverse twenty-first-century workforce is having to operate under lockstep rules designed for mostly married, middle-class, white-collar and unionized blue-collar men in the middle of the twentieth century. Doing so exacerbates employees’ stress, along with their time overloads, work-family strains, and conflicting loyalties and pressures. Most workers—men and women of all ages and life stages— report this sense of overwork and overload.

Lockstep imagery and policies are also out of step with changing skill requirements in light of new communication and information technologies and the dislocations brought about by the mergers, bankruptcies, and layoffs endemic to a competitive global labor market. In conjunction with a global economy characterized by outsourcing and downsizing, the traditional (and typically implicit) contract between U.S. employers and their employees, rewarding hard work and commitment with advancement (or at least security), has disappeared.

Still, although it is more myth than reality, the lock-step career mystique remains in taken-for-granted polices and practices, “glass corridors” that effectively limit the options around work, education, and retirement. Almost all aspects of life in twenty-first-century America remain tied to a regime of often invisible age-and gender-graded roles, rules, and regulations fashioned from the lockstep myth. Consider how various policies—health insurance, Social Security, unemployment insurance, pensions, vacations—are all predicated of full-time, continuous employment.

The lockstep patterning of lives—education, paid work, and retirement—remains embedded in the culture of adulthood throughout Europe and Asia as well as the United States. This blueprint both shapes and is shaped by social policies still geared to (a) full-time, continuous, paid work as the key to economic and occupational stability and success and (b) the image of retirement as a one-way, one-time, irreversible exit from the workforce. The myth of orderly career progression remains the yardstick against which all workers’—men’s and women’s—experiences are gauged, even though it reflects the experiences of ever-fewer employees. Contemporary Americans are finding themselves increasingly vulnerable to the vicissitudes of a global economy, with its global workforce and informational technologies. While Canada, Sweden, Germany, and other countries in the European community experience high unemployment rates, they also maintain “safety nets.” Still, the trends toward early retirement, corporate restructuring, women’s employment, and the changing employer/employee contract are widespread. For example, state socialism in China used to mean secure state jobs (a situation termed the “iron rice bowl”); with the introduction of capital markets, however, such state jobs are now neither as prevalent nor as secure as in the past.

Cultural expectations about the lockstep career mystique are changing at a glacial pace. Employers, men, women, and even children take for granted that regular, paid work means spending five days, 40 or more hours a week, on the job (a standard enacted in the United States in 1938 by the Fair Labor Standards Act); that education is for children and young people; that retirement is a one-way, one-time, irreversible exit; and that family care work is women’s responsibility. This sense of “the way things are” creates, perpetuates, and exacerbates inequalities—financial and emotional—between men and women. It also pressures workers struggling to start families, raise children, manage dual careers, and/or care for aging or infirm relatives. And, even as the workforce ages (with the progression of the large baby boom cohort, born 1946-1964), existing, taken-for-granted arrangements around paid work and aging foster the “rolelessness” of retirement.

The lockstep myth of career progression only reinforces gender divides. When men earn more than women and have a greater chance of moving ahead in their jobs, it makes sense for couples to invest in husbands’ occupational careers, even if it means short­changing wives’ own prospects. Thus, the weight of coordinating work and family responsibilities rests, for the most part, on the shoulders of employed wives, mothers, female single parents, and the daughters of ailing parents. Having one “good” job (with benefits) and one part-time or less demanding second job per family perpetuates gender differences in both salary and advancement prospects.

Life—and work—in the twentieth century is definitely not lockstep. Americans’ transitions into and out of school, marriage, parenting, paid work, and care work are both more contingent and more varied than ever. People today are changing not only their jobs but also their occupations; returning to school at all ages or staying in school longer; marrying later, divorcing, or staying single; delaying childbearing or having no children; and retiring early, late, not at all, or several times. The United States and, indeed, nations around the world stand in a whirlwind of demographic, economic, technological, and social change. But policies and practices remain caught in a time warp.

The lockstep career mystique fosters a false divide between the two most fundamental life dimensions, job and family, as they play out over the life course. Americans try to follow the rules of the “career” game but on their own terms, well aware that such rules no longer guarantee achievement, autonomy, or even security. Most contemporary men and women want it all, including gender equality, but accommodate outdated and conflicting institutions through hybrid strategies, with one foot in twentieth-century practices and the other tentatively in the twenty-first, to deal with the risks and realities of twenty-first-century lives. This means that women, wives, and single mothers still do most of society’s care work without pay, even as they try simultaneously to maintain ties to the paid workforce. Men, husbands, and fathers put in long hours in paid work, even as many try to help out at home. Most Americans believe in equal opportunities for men and women but simply can’t make it happen, even in their own families.

The lockstep career mystique and the corollary policy regimes built around it also foster age divides. Most Americans in their 50s, 60s, and 70s want to remain engaged in some form of productive activity, but not without some schedule flexibility. Neither do these growing ranks of older Americans want to put in the long hours most jobs require. Conventional employment and retirement patterns make it difficult for older workers to fashion the type of arrangements they want.

The lockstep career mystique developed during very different times, for a very different workforce, in a very different economy. Yet most Americans—men and women—continue to embrace the lockstep education-career-retirement path, even though it is out of date and out of place in twenty-first-century America. This myth of the lockstep career is interwoven into the very fabric of the American way of life, making it hard to envision any alternatives in the arrangements of either work or retirement. And yet most Americans confront job or income insecurity and stress as they contend with the moving platform of change characterizing life thus far in the twenty-first century. And most older workers now moving toward retirement experience uncertainty, ambivalence, and ambiguity as they consider their future possibilities. Although lifelong education and returning to school at various ages and stages are increasingly common, most institutions of higher education cater to a clientele of young people. While myths are important, providing a vision of what is possible, Phyllis Moen and Patricia Roehling conclude that the lockstep career and retirement mystiques are “false myths” standing in the way of creating new, alternative workplace, retirement, and career policies, flexibilities, and opportunities. Creating this alternative scenario requires putting lives and institutions back together, developing institutional arrangements that widen the circle of career options at all ages and life stages. The costs of sustaining the outdated lockstep regime—to individual and family health and well-being, to gender equality, to lifelong occupational opportunity, and to a sense of community— may well be unacceptably high.

The latter part of the lockstep life course is already in the process of being reformulated, in light of increased longevity, the aging of the large baby boom cohort, forced or encouraged (with buyouts) early retirements, and concerns about health insurance, pensions, and Social Security. Retirement is becoming a blurred transition, with considerable heterogeneity in its timing and in how lives are lived after retirement. These changes are establishing the groundwork for differentiating an emerging “third age” from the second age of “prime” adulthood and the fourth age of old age.

Most crucial are multiple exit and entry career “portals.” Existing lockstep “glass corridors” shaping occupational and career paths offer ways to get off the career train but no way to get back on, with few options between full-time (or more) employment throughout adulthood and quitting one’s job entirely. The current lockstep career path is a forked road: Follow the yellow-brick, orderly career mystique or else move “off track” to part-time, contingent, or intermittent work. The policies and practices sustaining this forked road, however, could be reformulated in ways more compatible with the multiple demands on and preferences of members of the twenty-first-century workforce. Flexible opportunities, together with alternative scaling back and “re” entry possibilities, would permit Americans to pace their occupational careers in ways that would not be at odds with their family “careers.” Older employees, burnt out or bored with one career, could begin “second acts” or revert back to an original “first-act” career at different ages and stages. Experienced and energetic employees and retirees could fashion hybrid arrangements, phasing out of or into employment and retirement—part-week, part-year, or both. Such innovative flexibility options could provide corporations and nonprofit organizations with a willing and able workforce of people of all ages wanting flexible jobs that fit their lives and values, not ones blindly following the lockstep clockwork. True gender equality, work-family sustainability, and age integration will be possible only when the clockwork of careers becomes flexible enough to be compatible with the clockwork of the rest of life for all employees, regardless of their gender, their age, or their family responsibilities. Such innovations are feasible, once employers, unions, and governments, along with employees themselves, begin to rethink the lockstep clockwork.

See also:


  1. Arthur, M. B. and Rousseau, D. M. 1996. The Boundaryless Career: A New Employment Principle for a New Organizational Era. New York: Oxford University Press.
  2. Friedan, B. 1963. The Feminine Mystique. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell.
  3. Friedman, S. D. and Greenhaus, J. H. 2000. Work and Family—Allies or Enemies: What Happens When Business Professionals Confront Life Choices. New York: Oxford University Press.
  4. Heinz, W. R. and Marshall, V. W., eds. 2003. Social Dynamics of the Life Course: Transitions, Institutions, and Interrelations. Hawthorne, NY: Aldine de Gruyter.
  5. Mayer, K. U. 1986. “Structural Constraints on the Life Course.” Human Development 29:163-170.
  6. Moen, P., ed. 2003. It’s About Time: Couples and Careers. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
  7. Moen, P. and Roehling, P. 2005. The Career Mystique: Cracks in the American Dream. Boulder, CO: Rowman & Littlefield.
  8. Osterman, P., ed. 1996. Broken Ladders: Managerial Careers in the New Economy. New York: Oxford University Press.
  9. Riley, M. W., Kahn, R. L. and Foner, A., eds. 1994. Age and Structural Lag: Society’s Failure to Provide Meaningful Opportunities in Work, Family, and Leisure. New York: Wiley.
  10. Wilensky, H. L. 1961. “Orderly Careers and Social Participation: The Impact of Work History on Social Integration in the Middle Mass.” American Sociological Review 26:521-539.