Like a roadblock, the best way to tackle a career plateau is to slow down, evaluate your options and accelerate in a new direction.

Let’s explore the ins and outs of career stagnation and how completing further study, such as an online MBA, can help you shift gears toward a more fulfilling and rewarding path.

What is a career plateau?

The concept of a career plateau was coined in the late 1970s by professors at Columbia University as “the point in a career where the likelihood of additional hierarchical promotion is very low”.

Fast forward a few decades, and we now understand that professional plateaus can arise for several reasons and can be either objective or subjective. The distinction lies between what others see and what you feel.

Objective career success is influenced by tangible, measurable achievements like promotions and salary, while subjective career success is about how satisfied you are with your job and career progression.

Sandy Hutchison, founder and CEO of Career Money Life, explains that plateaus are a natural part of any career journey and an opportunity for growth and development.

“It’s important for people to think about what career progression means for them,” she says. “It’s not always just about seeing your career grow through taking on leadership and management roles. It can also be about deepening your expertise in a particular area of focus.”

Types of career plateaus

There are three broad types of career plateaus known as ‘vertical’, ‘horizontal’ and ‘stagnation’, each driven by different triggers and underlying factors. Here’s a closer look at what each of them means:

  • If you’ve arrived at the highest promotional point in your current role with no room for advancement, this is known as a vertical plateau.
  • If learning and growth have slowed in your role, you’ve likely reached a horizontal plateau.
  • When growth and development cease altogether, you can cash in your ticket to the stagnation plateau.

Which stage resonates most with you?

If you’re feeling stuck, bored or unsure about your career, Hutchison suggests taking time to go within and reflect.

“Ask yourself: ‘What are my values? What do I want? Where do I want to take my career?’ The answer may indicate that you actually want to make a career change because where you are now may no longer be the right environment for you.”

How common are career plateaus?

Although data on career plateaus are scarce, the Australian Bureau of Statistics reports that 33 per cent of people who quit their jobs in 2022 did so in pursuit of a better job or just a change, highlighting the prevalence of career stagnation in Australia.

This figure aligns with Hutchison’s estimation that around 20–30 per cent of her clients experience a career plateau, usually during the early to mid stages of their careers or when they reach 45 and ageism creeps in.

The role of ageism in career plateaus

The 2021 Ageing in the Workforce report identified that 1 in 5 workers (39.6 per cent) aged over 50 has directly experienced age discrimination in the workplace — twice as many compared to 2016 (20.4 per cent). And sadly, over 40 per cent report feeling patronised in the workplace due to their age.

“Older workers struggle with being marginalised at work,” says Hutchison. “Employers contribute to the problem by focusing their training and investments on the younger workforce, assuming they will stay for an extended period. However, nowadays, younger people are less inclined to stay with the same company long term, and it would have been more sensible to invest in older employees who are content to remain with the organisation.”

Despite the data showing that the ageing cohort is highly productive, more experienced and remarkably loyal, she suggests that employees over 45 should take the initiative to keep their skills current to counteract common biases, including digital capability prejudice.

Southern Cross University’s online MBA contains a core unit in Digital Marketing and RMIT’s online MBA includes a course on Technology and Innovation, covering subjects like Digital Innovation and Digital Entrepreneurship. These are the types of skills that can help older workers remain in demand in the workforce and make a career change at any age.

Professional growth: the key to avoiding a career plateau

In today’s fast-paced and ever-changing professional landscape, having a career plan is crucial for employees who want to take advantage of professional growth opportunities and avoid a career plateau.

Career planning will give you a sense of purpose and direction and a roadmap to achieving your career goals. Developing a career path framework can be a helpful way to plan and navigate your working years in a way that aligns with your values and goals.

Explore professional development opportunities

Just as career planning creates a roadmap for reaching your goals, professional development is the car that will get you there.

To continue to grow and advance in your career, it’s important to stay informed and keep your skills up to date. At a basic level, this might include:

  • attending conferences and workshops to learn from industry experts and network with other professionals
  • pursuing a certification or degree to build upon your skills and ensure your knowledge remains relevant
  • seeking mentorship from experienced professionals who can share valuable industry insights and career advice
  • participating in specialised skills training programs that support your goals, such as public speaking
  • taking on or volunteering for projects that allow you to demonstrate your value and worth

Or, to elevate your qualifications considerably, enrol in an online MBA.

An MBA emphasises the development of core business skills across leadership, finance, marketing, strategy and accounting.

“If you’re looking towards a career at the executive level,” says Hutchison, “an MBA can give you a broad base of knowledge and expertise across business functions, so a more commercial frame around business.”

As a graduate, you’ll hold a globally recognised qualification that pushes your CV to the top of the pile and opens the doors to higher pay and broader career opportunities.

“A lot of companies will sponsor you or pay part of the cost and enable you to have some time off to do it flexibly or study online,” Hutchison adds. “So it’s certainly not the proposition it was 20 years ago when you had to take two or three years out of your life to invest in training.”

The key to avoiding a career plateau is to view professional development as an ongoing journey of learning and self-improvement.

Victoria University’s online MBA can be completed part-time over two years and will enable you to upskill in areas like business ethics and sustainability, change management and innovation.

James Cook University’s online MBA will get you up to speed on management and leadership skills, corporate finance and business consulting.

Do I need a bachelor’s degree to enrol for an MBA?

If you meet the relevant work experience criteria, you can apply for an MBA program without a bachelor’s degree. Generally, that includes a minimum of four years of managerial experience or other qualifications recognised by the dean of the university you’re applying to.

How to tackle roadblocks when you’re eager to grow professionally

Professional development opportunities may not land in your lap, so be prepared to put your hand up and speak up. Volunteer your time in another role, seek out a secondment or explore other lateral moves that can bring you closer to your career goals.

How many career changes is too many?

There’s no magic number for how many career changes you can or should have in a lifetime.

Hutchison cautions that if you’ve been in a role for three years and see no opportunity to make a lateral move and haven’t heard any talk of career progression, this could be a red flag for a potential plateau.

Overcome a career plateau with confidence

Bouncing back from a career plateau starts with self-reflection and exploration — it’s all part of the natural evolution of your professional journey. Speak to a Student Enrolment Advisor to explore how studying an MBA can get you back on track.

Speak to a Student Enrolment Advisor

Whether you’re ready to enrol, or just have a quick question, simply fill out the enquiry form below to speak directly to the university’s enrolment team. They will be able to guide you through:

Course eligibility and recognition of prior learning

Course structure and what you will study

Next intakes and how to apply

Fees and time commitments