The End of Employment?

My friend Amy decided this time last year that she’d had it with her job. “I used to love my work, but I’m grossly underpaid after four years with the company, the creative challenges have dried up, and the workload has grown to the point where it’s ridiculous,” she told me. Amy had figured out that if she could pin down five clients for the graphic design business she planned to launch after New Year’s Day, she’d make as much money as she had made at the full-time job, and have a lot more free time.

Amy made a firm commitment to quit her job on January 2, 2014. She didn’t get to carry out her plan, because a semi-forgotten networking contact turned into a hot job lead in early December, and Amy accepted a fantastic job (and gave notice) before she left for the Christmas holiday. “Your energy was up,” I told her. “It was easy for the people interviewing you to see that you were on fire, and ready to make things happen.” Amy brought her previously-bottled-up creative energy to her new firm, but she told me something important.

“Part of me wonders what would have happened if I had jumped off the cliff the way I was planning to,” she said. “I was starting to get excited about having my own business, working from home, spending time with my kids and building my entrepreneurial muscles. Now that I’ve accepted another W-2 job, I’m going to try to keep that entrepreneurial awareness. I’m not going to go to sleep on my job, ever again.”

What Amy realized is that she had become complacent about her career, thinking “Well, the important thing is to have a decent job, and I have one” whenever the topic of her professional life came up in her own mind. The old model for all of us was “Well, at least I have a job.”

We used to make job changes only rarely, and get back on the horse pretty quickly if one job went away. When I was a kid, a neighbor out of work was something the grownups would whisper about at my parents’ cocktail parties. It was exceptional. These days, being out of work is the new norm.

Staying with one company through retirement is almost unheard of, unless you’re already spitting distance away from your gold watch. One HR friend of mine told me that when she started talking about the company retirement plan at a new-employee orientation meeting, the newcomers burst our laughing. Retirement plan, seriously? Those days of long-term employment with one employer are gone.

These days, lots of capable people spend more time between jobs than actually doing jobs, despite their best efforts. Employers certainly aren’t concerned about adding staff and eliminating it at the drop of a hat, whenever a bad quarters messes up an earnings report or when the executives are feeling skittish. How can you run a career that way?

The answer is that you can’t. All of us have to develop an entrepreneurial mindset in 2015, whether we’re working for a fledgling startup or a huge corporation or in government or not-for-profits.

We have to take the reins for our own careers. If your job could disappear at any moment — and I’m sorry to remind you that it easily could — wouldn’t you want to have your feet under you, and be prepared for an abrupt transition if it happens? Wouldn’t that be better than hiding your head in the sand and telling yourself “That probably won’t happen, at least not soon?”

The fact is that people who’ve been laid off a few times are typically better-equipped than the rest of us to deal with a fast career shift. They know how to brand themselves. They know how to network. They know how to re-frame their background for a new opportunity, and how to make their experiences relevant to a choosy hiring manager.

They know how to use LinkedIn, and how to tell stories on a job interview, and how to determine which six or eight employers could use their talents if the current one went away. They know how to customize a resume for a given opportunity and how to finesse the dozens of issues (from salary to references to travel, tools and titles) that come up in a job search.

Most of all, people who have taken active charge of their own careers have build the entrepreneurial muscles that my friend Amy was telling me about. They know what sort of business pain they solve, beyond “I have seven years of tax and audit experience.” They know what sorts of organizations have that business pain most often, and they know what their resumes are worth in the talent marketplace.

These are the same things entrepreneurs know about their markets. If we go to sleep on our careers and stop asking ourselves the question “What’s my Plan B? What’s my Plan C?” we’re in trouble, but many of us haven’t worked our away around to realizing that.

We listen to our CEO’s podcasts or read his or her state-of-the-company memos and try to discern what the podcasts and memos mean for our own job security.. Ironically, job security is the last thing we should be worried about. If we use the term “job security” in the traditional way, to mean “the likelihood that I’ll be able to stay in this job if I want to” then job security may be the worst possible thing for our career.

Back in the days when we had a reasonable chance to retire from an employer’s payroll after years of loyal service, it made sense to think “I’ll stay here at Acme Explosives; it’s not perfect, but it’s so firmly in my best interest to stick it out — I’d be crazy to move to a new employer with just a few years left to go before retirement.”

That thought process made sense in 1970, and maybe even in 1985. It doesn’t make sense now. After a long tenure (a decade, let’s say) at the same shop, sticking around for another year is more likely to hurt your resume than to strengthen it. Here’s why:

  • When you change jobs, you go through a learning process — we call it the learning curve. You won’t get that learning unless you put yourself (or find yourself) in a position to learn a lot of new things, fast. That doesn’t happen as readily sticking at one job as it does when you make big changes. One of the biggest questions future employers will want you to answer is “What have you learned, lately?”
  • A resume that shows umpteen years at the same employer used to spell “loyalty,” but today it can signal “calcified.” Unless you have awesome, rockin’ projects and new situations to talk about from every year of your employment (including every separate year with your current employer) you’re actually slipping behind your contemporaries who have consulted, or changed jobs more often than you have, or grown their entrepreneurial muscles in other ways.
  • The big danger for W-2 employees is that they lose touch with the market for their services. They’re happy to get pay increases whenever they happen, but they don’t have a good sense of what they bring to the talent market and what those talents are worth to businesses. They’re isolated from the on-the-ground transactions that define their market worth, and that’s a bad place to be. Entrepreneurs are never in that situation, because the value of their products or services is proven (or called into question) every day.

We’re at a point that we might call The End of Employment, not because full-time W-2 jobs will disappear from the landscape entirely, but because the used-to-be-central question “Are you an employee or a contractor?” hardly has any significance anymore.

These days, there’s so little distinction between employees and contractors that many of my clients and friends have to pause a moment to think before they can answer that question. In The End of Employment era, W-2s and 1099s are just different ways to get paid.

There is no security in any W-2 job. When people call me and ask me “Which employer is really secure?” I tell them that the Vatican might be — I’m not really sure. Of course, no employment is secure.

Our job security today is something we carry around with us. It’s our marketability, our awareness of the business value of our efforts, our networks, our references and our mojo. Those are the tools and assets entrepreneurs and consultants take stock of and sharpen every day. “Regular” working people need to start doing the same thing — and the sooner they start, the better.