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Careering Off Track: The New World of Work

September 17, 2015 • Editors' Pick, Emerging Ideas, Entrepreneurship, Global Business, STRATEGY & MANAGEMENT, Talent Management

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By Adrian Furnham

Today, the idea of a ‘job for life’ is, for many people, neither possible nor desirable.  The concept of the career has, and will continue to change. The old career contract with the organisation is less relevant, the new contract is with oneself – individuals will need to take an active role in steering their own ship and plotting their own course.  This is the new age of self-reliant careers.

 

Once upon a time, or so it seemed, ability, loyalty and long service were rewarded by a steady climb up the corporate ladder. The speed and end-point in the career were defined only by ability and service (and perhaps a bit of politics).

Today, the idea of a ‘job for life’ is, for many people, neither possible nor desirable. In many European countries, about one-third to one-half of the workforce are in temporary or self-employment. There is now a cohort of young people, aged 30 years and under, who expect and look forward to building up a portfolio of jobs in different companies. They are content to give 5 to 8 years’ loyal and enthusiastic service to a variety of possibly widely different companies so as to increase their experience and competence.

For many people, this new approach to a working life is exciting rather than worrying. It has been estimated that people used to have about 100 000 working hours over a 47-year working period to pursue a career. Now 47 years has shrunk to 30, with many retiring at 50 and thinking of a ‘second career’. Whereas some older people perceive this as a threat, many younger people interpret it as a major opportunity – with change comes growth and opportunity, in their opinion.
Employment has changed and so have careers. The way people approached a career was characterised by many different strategies:

Drifters seemed rather directionless and unambitious. Some seemed not to be able to hold down a job for any period of time, but they had to be flexible and adaptable as they took on new jobs every so often. Drifters could be seen by some people to be capricious, fickle, or even reckless. More positively, they are adventurous and experimental.

Lifers are the opposite of drifters – the lifer’s first job is their last. Although they might not have chosen their first job judiciously, or with foresight, they settled down for life. Although this may be an excellent strategy if one is in a company on the move, it is more likely to be a trade-off of high risk/gain over security. Further, downsizing and restructuring has left them not very employable. Lifers are loyal, but they are risk-averse, and liable to be alienated as performance management systems replace seniority-based or service ideologies

Hoppers look like snakes and ladders experts. They seem to go up short ladders quite fast, perhaps in small companies or departments, but slide down slippery snakes as they change jobs in the search for betterment. They lack the long-term vision of the planner, who has the whole journey mapped out. They may have made job move decisions too quickly, based on too little data

Planners have clear targets, sometimes over-ambitiously fantasised. They can articulate where they want to be at the big milestones of life (aged 40, 55 or 60). They may even cultivate head-hunters, apply (whimsically) for jobs on a regular basis, and update their CVs quarterly. Planners are committed to their career development. They understand the modern world of portfolio management.

There is now a cohort of young people, aged 30 years and under, who expect and look forward to building up a portfolio of jobs in different companies.

Hobbyists are masters of this final strategy. Some are SOBOs – Shoved Out, but Better Off – but many, often in their 40s, become concerned with self-development. They echo the observation of a priest, who for years counselled the dying, heard their confessions and their regrets; no one said that they wished they had spent more time in the office. The hobbyist may take early retirement, turn to consultancy, or simply define quality of life as more important than the rat race. This makes them interesting people, but not always deeply committed to the company’s interest. Work is a hobby for these people.

Those who have studied jobs, careers and the world of work have long argued that it is misleading to believe that permanent jobs are good and temporary jobs are bad, or vice versa. It has been suggested that good jobs are characterised by quite specific factors that include:

1. Control: some opportunity to decide and act in one’s chosen way, and the potential to predict the consequences of one’s actions. Being given limited control, such as the offer of flexi-time, is very desirable.

2. Skill use: jobs that allow people to practise learnt skills and acquire new ones are desirable. Job change often involves the necessity of skill acquisition, which, in the long run, is very desirable.

3. Clear goals and feedback on performance: being given or, better still, helping to decide clear goals is always desirable. More attractive still is being given regular, honest feedback on one’s performance. Increasingly, portfolio jobs are being set up, which have the requirement that employees give and get regular and explicit feedback on their performance.

4. Variety: tedious, monotonous tasks are a thing of the past. Indeed, many temporary jobs are characterised by novelty, both of task and location. Of course, too much variety can be stressful, and lead to burn-out, but too little leads to ‘rust-out’, which is probably worse.

5. Contact: all jobs provide the opportunity for interpersonal contact with others, be they fellow employees, customers or even shareholders. Contact provides the opportunity to make friends and reduce loneliness. It allows people to provide emotional, informational and financial support to each other. And it allows for social comparisons, an opportunity to compare themselves with others, to interpret and appraise themselves.

6. Valued social position: this is not only about job title but the value attached by society at large to the role and the contribution made. Jobs can boost self- and social esteem – and undermine it. Jobs provide public evidence that a person has certain abilities, conforms to particular norms and meets social obligations.

7. Security: there are many types of security, the most basic of which is physical security. Temporary jobs frequently supply security of tenure over a specified period. Indeed, paradoxically, the nature of the legal contract of many temporary jobs actually makes employees more secure (for a specified period) than those on longer and vaguer contracts.

8. Money and reward: some permanent jobs are very badly paid, as are temporary jobs. Money is a powerful short-term reward only, and is more likely to be a source of dissatisfaction than satisfaction. Some temporary jobs are, in fact, well paid because of the expectation of unemployment (for example, pilots).

In some sense all the above can be broken down into two very different factors:

Intrinsic: you choose a job because you love the work; it is your passion; where your abilities and values and gifts are best expressed; where you are happy and content; when you experience flow, contentment, even joy

Extrinsic: where the rewards are high and where you are prepared to do difficult, demanding and even dangerous work because the (usually monetary) rewards are high. In this sense you are happy with a trade-off: you trade off some aspect of ease and satisfaction for a cocktail package of rewards that are important to you

Who exactly is responsible for one’s career or, more likely, careers? Three groups have specific responsibilities for an individual’s career development.

Money is a powerful short-term reward only, and is more likely to be a source of dissatisfaction than satisfaction.

First, the organisation itself should provide training and developmental opportunities where possible. Courses, sabbaticals, job shares and shadowing experiences, for instance, all help. They need to provide realistic and up-to-date career information and, where necessary, outplacement services. Indeed, these may become more and more important reasons why people would choose to work for any particular organisation.

Second, line managers, too, have responsibilities. They need to provide high-quality and timely feedback on performance so that staff gets to appraise themselves realistically. They need to have regular, expectation-managing discussions and support their reports in their action plans. Again, where possible, they need to offer developmental assignments where they can acquire new skills. Honest feedback and opportunities to develop new skills are the best things any manager can do for his/her employees, permanent or temporary.

Third, individuals themselves must accept responsibility for their own career. They cannot expect to remain passive. Individuals must seek out information on careers within and without the organisation; they must initiate talks with their managers about careers and be prepared to invest in assessing their strengths and weaknesses.

They need to be prepared to take up development opportunities even if they are outside their particular comfort zone.

We all make our beds and then we lie in them. Fatalists believe that the success of their working life is dependent on powerful forces – the international economy, politicians, God, the lottery and pure chance. Instrumentalists know that we can all be captain of our ship and master of our fate. The fact that we may all now have nine (working) lives, rather than one, presents much greater opportunities for growth, development and upward mobility.

Personal identity and values, and interpersonal factors are becoming more important in shaping career directions and rewards.

The concept of the career has, and will continue to change. Certainly, the long-service-in-one-organisation career is on the decline. The old career contract with the organisation is less relevant, the new contract is with oneself. The ability to have multiple careers, probably a better way of working than the temporary career, means that people will have to learn new skills and reinvent themselves. We shall all need to be more feedback-seeking and more eager to learn from others. If you don’t know where you want to go, you will certainly end up somewhere you don’t want to be. Chosen jobs need to fit ability and values, and a sense of identity. The use of support and affinity groups, networks and adult learning centres, is one of the best sources of help in personal career development. We shall all need to learn how to plan and develop our working careers in the future.

Paradoxically, learning from experience seems to be more critical than ever, yet past experience has less relevance to current experience, because of the speed of change. In the new world of self-reliant careers, it will be essential for individuals to take an active role in steering their own ship and plotting their own course. Compared with the past, there will need to be a higher degree of learning by oneself, of communicating with others, interdisciplinary work, working in groups and solving personal problems.
Personal initiative is more and more rewarded. Self-starters, the proactive and the persistent will inherit the earth.

Organisational factors are becoming less important in determining individual career outcomes – personal identity and values, and interpersonal factors are becoming more important in shaping career directions and rewards.

Non-traditional careers will soon become traditional. The flexibility of opportunity structures and labour markets is growing. Organisations are preparing for the new and different needs of the new careerists. Both the formal employment contract drawn up by companies and the psychological contract that temporary employees have with the organisation are being rethought and redrawn. There is no going back. We are all careering in a new direction.

About the Author
Adrian Furnham is Professor at University College London, the Norwegian Business School and the University of KwaZulu Natal. He has written 80 books and 1200 peer-reviewed papers.

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