Career Cushioning—The Latest Trend in Employment

You may have had the same experience I had as a kid. When I wanted to know how to spell a word or what it meant, my mom would say, “Look it up in the dictionary.” But the dictionary on the shelf then would be woefully out of date today.

Every year lexicographers, the people who write and edit the dictionary, revise definitions that have changed or become outdated, update pronunciations and etymologies, and add new words that have become common in everyday society. These lexicologists have been working overtime for the last three years, adding the rapid succession of business phrases that have defined the actions and attitudes of American workers, especially younger ones.

First, we got “The Great Resignation.” Beginning in April 2020 and moving through March 2022, there was a massive blitz of workers leaving their jobs and getting new ones. The number of available positions was so great compared to the number of people to fill them that workers could write their own ticket. To fill positions, employers were forced to pay higher wages, provide additional benefits and often times, pay signing bonuses. Even fast food restaurants, which only a few months before were paying $12 dollars an hour, were forced to pay $18 dollars an hour for people to run the cash register or work the drive-thru.

It didn’t take long before we got The Great Regret. A survey by Paychex found that 80% of the people who quit during the Great Resignation now regret it. They changed jobs for better pay, better benefits, better work-life balance, more respect from an employer, and more power resting with the employee instead of the employer. Now they say it hasn’t worked out the way they were promised. As it turned out, Gen Z’ers have the most regret about swapping jobs.

Overall, 68% of employees say they’ve attempted to get their old jobs back, but only 27% of employers have rehired the employees that left.

This led to Quiet Quitting. This refers to employees who are so unhappy with the job they now have that they do the minimum requirements of the job, putting in no more time, effort, or enthusiasm than absolutely necessary in order to keep the job and draw a paycheck.

Which leads us to Career Cushioning. Supposedly the concept comes from the dating world. Cushioning is a technique where daters keep a few options on the table to provide themselves with a backup should their main relationship fail. Put into economic terms, employees are keeping as many options available as possible so they don’t get financially decimated by a recession.

According to LinkedIn, conversations on the platform about economic uncertainty are skyrocketing. Posts mentioning “layoff” or “retrenchment” increased 17.9% compared to last year, while posts mentioning “recession” are up 879%.

Meanwhile, according to LinkedIn’s Workforce Confidence Index, based on feedback from more than 11,000 U.S workers, only 44% of employees feel they are prepared for an economic downturn, while 31% are concerned that their company is planning budget cuts and/or layoffs.

This is where career cushioning is coming into play. Employees are testing the job market to see what’s out there, gauging their standing in the current job market, and seeing if their salary expectations are reasonable so they have as much leverage as possible with their current employer.

Quiet quitting fits into career cushioning as well. Trends in the employment community show an increasing number of employees putting in just enough effort to keep their job and their paycheck while they look for side hustles and opportunities to moonlight, to have something in the wings just in case they get laid off or downsized because of economic conditions.


Is Career Cushioning Ethical?

Some argue that career cushioning isn’t exactly ethical. When you’re working at one company, they expect to get all of your time, effort, and focus through the good and the bad. If all of your energy is focused on your job, this argument says, the organization is less likely to fail as your cog in the larger machine of the company is holding strong.

Others say that career cushioning is ethical as you’re not in a monogamous relationship with your role. Being prepared for the worst is realistic, and building skills is a good part of anyone’s career progression. This is especially the case if one feels like the ship of their company is sinking, and the writing is on the wall. A job is a reciprocal relationship that makes you sharper, smarter, and more experienced, which creates a feedback loop that gives you a valuable place on your team.

Hive, a project manager platform, says, if you are going to career cushion, there’s a right way to do it. And it lists five ways to go about proper cushioning.


  1. Upskill

A study from LinkedIn found that more than 40% of companies across the globe search for jobs based on skills rather than credentials. So, if you want to be ready for whatever job comes next, focus on your skills. At worst, you’ll keep your job and just get better at it. And at best, if you really are laid off, you’ll be ready for whatever the job market has to offer you.


  1. Define your skills

Rather than just trying to find a backup job that fits many of your qualifications (or treating your current job like it’s not your first option), don’t put a Band-Aid over a bigger wound. The more significant problem here might not be that you’re uncertain about your career path, but more about the fact that you don’t know what you want in a more profound sense. By defining your personal values and what matters to you in a role, you’ll be able to determine if the job you have now is what you actually want.


  1. Apply and interview

There’s nothing that will sate your curiosity about forming a backup plan than getting out there and seeing what there is for yourself. Make a commitment to search for a new job, and don’t be passive about it – start interviewing and applying. It may turn out that you get the push you need to move on from a role that feels unstable, or you find someone that appreciates you more than your current organization does.


  1. Examine how unstable your role is

Career cushioning isn’t just a harmless preventative measure – it can also be an anxious endeavor based on fear. If you’re consumed with creating a backup plan in case you get fired, do some research to see if you should really be panicking. Ask your managers about your performance and what you can improve on. Listen to chatter about your company’s success or failure and verify information from the gossip mill with your own personal research.


  1. Try out a side hustle

Something that will give you a solid feeling of strength regardless of your job situation is acquiring some sort of side hustle that makes you feel like you have your autonomy back. A report from Zapier, an online automation company, found that 40% of Americans have some side hustle along with their full-time jobs. And if you’re nervous about being unprepared for a job loss, having a side hustle will give you purpose, build your skills, and provide a small income while you regroup.


The Great Resignation, the Great Regret, Quiet Quitting, and now Career Cushioning. What’s next? Stay tuned.

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