The Changing Nature of Work
The majority of previous generations, including many of my own Gen-X peers, spent a significant portion of employees spent their careers working for a single employer, even if they didn’t retire with the watch or pension of the Mad Men era.
This isn’t to say that people didn’t lose their jobs. Employment in the US has long been governed by the general doctrine of employment at will for the vast majority of us. It was more that decent performance in a stable company generally led to a lifetime with your employer. Employers weren’t looking to get rid of employees en masse and employees tended to respond to that sense of stability with a sense of trust in and commitment to their employer.
Beginning in the mid-1980’s, we began to see a shift. We saw an increase in healthy firms laying off employees as part of business turnarounds. In many ways, this led to the passage of the WARN Act in 1988 (and a growth of euphemisms for terminations).
More recently, perhaps starting with the Great Recession, we have seen a wealth of articles about worker loyalty at the same time that we have seen a growth of freelancers and the freelance economy where people perform contract work, projects or gigs in addition to or in place of regular FT employment. The size of this labor market is highly dependent on what definition you use: any side work (53 million people) or regular side work (17.9 million) or second jobs (7 million).
What Happened to the Lifetime Job?
There is an important generational backdrop to this changing nature of work and jobs. GenXers (born 1965–1976/80 – the end date varies by source) and Millennials (born 1976/80 – 1990/97 – start and end dates vary by source) have experienced:
- Boomers delaying retirement (due to the recession of 2007-08) at just the same time that GenXers and early Millennials were beginning to hit key peak career potential
- Parents and friends’ parents that lost jobs during the recession of 2007-08, leaving GenXers and Millennials with a strong desire to take more control of their own careers
- The trend, led by management consulting companies, to take management layers, and career ladder promotions, out of organizations
- The sharing economy, which led to a desire to own less and experience more
All of this led to the GenXers and Millennials feeling like there were: limits on their upward mobility; risks to trusting their career paths to their company and (maybe?) less of a need to accumulate wealth.
What’s a Job Anyway?
In an interesting HBR article on the size of the “freelance” market, Steve King talked about the psychology of what people consider a “job” and how that impacts the numbers. That in and of itself is fascinating – “the psychology of what people consider a job.” I doubt that in the 1950’s and 1960’s you could have found much variation in what people considered to be a “job.” But now there is significant variability in terms of what people consider their job and many of us have some sort of side-gig in addition to our regular job.
What Does This Mean for the Idea of Career?
Here’s the rub … with the nature of work changing, with the speed at which technology is changing how we do our job, with the constant drumbeat of disruptive innovations in many industries and with the shifting concepts of loyalty on both sides, how on earth can we prepare ourselves for an entire career?
Fast Company has done a fairly extensive series on “Generation Flux” (which isn’t defined by birth year, but by mindset and philosophy about work and career). The series touches upon a type of worker that really isn’t defined by the traditionally written job description.
Another great article on this topic is the HBR article, Tours of Duty which addresses how companies can respond, manage and leverage a trend for shorter employment stints to motivate and engage talented employees.
While the Fast Company series is kind of a “how-to” article on thinking of yourself differently and owning your career in this new way, the HBR article is about how companies can respond, manage and leverage this trend.
And the reality is that for all the doom and gloom, the right talent is in short supply and has been for years. Deloitte’s Global Human Capital Trends 2015 report said it this way:
“This year, the ‘on demand’ and ‘on tap’ talent markets continue to grow and to challenge companies’ ability to effectively manage their total workforce, as companies expand their use of external talent sources to gain access to badly needed capabilities.”