Credit: LaurMG/Wikipedia

5 reasons you're unhappy with your career (and what you can do about it)

Dissatisfied at how your career's progressed? You're not alone. Thankfully, it's never too late to give it a jump start.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 13 Apr 2016

Cast your mind back to the moment after you got your first job. The handshakes are over, the tension’s released. You’ve gushed to your new boss that they won’t regret it and asked all the little practical questions you could think of. In the excitement, your thoughts turn to the future and the glittering career ahead of you.

Sound familiar? Unfortunately, for many of us this is a bittersweet memory. One in three workers is dissatisfied with how their career has progressed, according to research by HR body the CIPD. Only 14% felt things had gone better than they’d expected. And who said the British were a pessimistic bunch (apart from every Australian)?

The research was based on a survey of 2,000 workers, so it’s hardly authoritative. Nonetheless, it’s telling that the dissatisfied make up a significant percentage of both men and women, across every bracket for age, educational, income and sector. So what reasons does the research give for your slump, and more importantly what can you do about it?

You’re in the wrong career

Everyone makes mistakes. It may have seemed like a fantastic idea when you were 21, but by your mid 40s you’ve realised that the life of a travelling acrobat just isn’t for you. Unsurprisingly,  being stuck in the wrong mould doesn’t tend to create job satisfaction. Of those who were dissatisfied, 29% said the key factor was being in the wrong career – rising to 47% and 48% for 18-24 year olds and 25-34 year olds respectively.

That won’t be so surprising, but the correlation with being poor or very poor growing up perhaps is. Nearly four in ten people from such backgrounds were dissatisfied with their career - 35% of them identified poor careers advice or guidance at school as a reason for their lack of progression, compared to only 19% of those from middle income backgrounds.

What you can do: first of all, think carefully about your motivations and what’s stopping you. Then, says Christine Armstrong in her review of The Escape Manifesto, it’s about finding an exciting job, starting a business or going on an adventure. ‘Google "TED Talks Spreadsheet" and you get a list of every TED talk ever, ranked by score, so you can immerse yourself in ideas and identify what excites you,’ Armstrong says.

You’ve got a poor line manager

A poor worker blames their tools. A dissatisfied worker apparently blames their line manager. A total of 39% of disgruntled employees thought their current or former managers had failed to identify their talents and stunted their career progression. Just over a third blamed office politics.

What you can do: other than quitting, it pays to be open with your boss about your concerns. Communication is a two-way process – perhaps you’re just broadcasting on the wrong frequency. 'Understand what matters to them and think how you can help them,' Mind Gym co-founder Octavius Black told MT. 'Being a boss can be a right pain, but it's usually quite easy to figure out what pressures they are under by seeing when they get stressed and the questions they ask.'

You’re too educated

Let’s be clear – education is useful for career progression. But it also comes with expectations attached. Four in ten workers with a bachelor’s degree were unhappy with their career progression, compared to only 32% of those who left school with only GCSEs. The proportion who thought they were overqualified for their jobs, meanwhile, was three times as high.

What you can do: first, get over yourself - do you really think recruiters are falling over themselves to tap your encyclopaedic knowledge of 17th century scholasticism? Beyond that, it’s never too late to get training in skills that will help your career – preferably at your current employer’s expense. The trick, career coach Penny Davenport told MT, is to pick your moment to raise the subject and make a convincing case. ‘Prepare your list of benefits to the company (stronger team oversight, better data quality and reporting etc) and if you can, go as far as to prepare a return on investment (ROI) or cost / benefit analysis,’ she said.

You’re a mother

Despite the introduction of shared parental leave, the impact of having a family still disproportionately affects women. Of those women whose careers hadn’t progressed as hoped, 31% believed parenthood and family commitments had been a key cause, compared to just 8% of men. Given that not all the women surveyed will have been mothers, the problem is likely to be even worse.

What you can do: it’s not easy to fight against what’s essentially a structural problem with the labour market. But there are things you can do. Networking and sharing advice at events like MT’s Inspiring Women conferences (next up: Edinburgh, March 17 and Birmingham, April 21) can certainly help. And never underestimate the power of believing in yourself.

‘You need the right support network and the right frame of mind to make progress,’ said insurance bigwig Claire Simpson, one of MT’s power mums. ‘But it’s important that you do make it for all the people behind you: if you stay and work your backside off, you will get there.’

You’re cursed

Respondents in the CIPD’s survey had various reasons to blame for their careers being somewhat less glamorous, enjoyable or remunerative than they had expected. Over a quarter (27% - 32% of men, 20% of women) blamed bad luck. It’s true that sometimes fortune deals you a rough hand. Your boss and mentor being struck by lightning moments before she could offer you that big promotion, only to be replaced by your worst enemy? That was surely out of your hands. Could have happened to anybody.

But to an extent you make your own luck. It’s interesting that there wasn’t an option of blaming yourself for things going wrong. The chances are that those who actually get where they want to go are the ones who don’t need to blame someone or something else for what happened.

What you can do: Manage expectations. Few of the big cheeses featured in MT got where they are now without some hitch or another, but they didn't let it stop them. If things go wrong, pick yourself up and keep going. 

Come to MT’s The Future of Work conference in London on 23 June and hear from some of Britain’s biggest business names, including Sir Martin Sorrell, Caroline Plumb, Lord Heseltine and Ann Hyams. Book below and save £140* using code MT40B.

*Standard ticket price: £349+VAT. With 40% discount price is reduced to: £209+VAT

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime