Thriving in a World Without 30-Year Careers

This ain’t your daddy’s or mommy’s business world anymore. I’m sure you’ve figured that out already. First of all, people use cell phones. This is a fact I’m constantly reminding my father of:

“Dad, turn on your cell phone when you’re not home.”

“Why? Then it will ring. I’m retired and I don’t want to be bothered by everyone.”

“Dad, the only people who have your number are me, Mom, and my sister…” He still doesn’t get it.

The career world he lived in has changed as well. Dad had a first career for 17 years at a large company that rhymes with AT&T (which makes his aversion to phones even more bizarre). After those wonderfully predictable pension-based years, it was a series of smaller “careers”—six years, six years, three years, five years, retirement. For him, it was no big deal. Five to six years is plenty of time to get settled in a home and community. It’s not a huge issue to demonstrate progression in a “career” at a company in five to six years and to move after that. But the world continues to change. For those of us in the workplace, we’re part of a new dynamic.

Let’s spend a little time with Roger Daltrey “talkin’ bout my generation.”

I had a very close friend call me yesterday. He has known our family for more than 20 years. He’s been through some of the same career dynamics as Dad. Many years in one place followed by several shorter “careers.” He’s now out of work as the result of a reorg and corporate politics. It happens. He posed an interesting question to me as we talked: “What do I do now in the current environment?” Wow—that’s actually a pretty deep question and I’m not Confucius. Nonetheless, I offered the following:

First, accept the world has changed and the constant layoffs or self-induced job changes are now a way of life. It’s not you; it’s the world. You’re going to change jobs. Often. Get over it. It’s not necessarily a reflection on your skills—it’s a reflection of an increasingly dynamic workplace whose needs evolve and change rapidly.

Given that change, the skills of its people either have to change as quickly or people need to be replaced with those who have those newly required skills. Accept that business is out for two things: profit maximization and risk mitigation (which in turn enhances profits). Sure there’s some altruistic behavior out there but even that can always be linked back to profits in some way, shape, or form. If your skills don’t fit, you’re not enhancing profits as much as the corporation would like and you will be replaced with someone who is better suited to fit that specific role.

So what’s a fella or gal to do?

  1. Know where you want to go and chart a course there. You wouldn’t go on a road trip without a destination and directions, would you? Why would you do that with your career? Ask yourself honestly right now if you know what the endpoint is. Where’s your destination? If you can’t answer it clearly and succinctly, take a day off and figure it out. Once you know where you are headed, it’s a heck of a lot easier to get there.
  2. Understand your environment. Watch the organization change. See where it’s heading. Assess the skills that will be required in that new world order and either go get trained and build those capabilities or polish your resume. Your call. If you want to stay, you have to find ways to stay relevant to the needs of the organization. The best way to do so is to always have the skills they’re looking for. If your destination from point 1 above involves staying and retiring from that organization because you love the work, love the community, etc., then brush up your skills. If not, brush off the resume.
  3. If your destination is geography- and company-agnostic, evaluate what the next role you’re looking for requires in terms of skills and find ways to build them. Take on a new role at your current company. Get trained. Get a mentor. Identify the skills you’ll need to land that next role that takes you closer to your destination and acquire them now at your current organization. Some of you reading this are saying “Mike, you disloyal %#&^%$!#@#!!! How can you advocate learning new skills at your current company so you can take those skills somewhere else to further your career?” Okay. Here’s a dose of reality. Check it out … at the end of the day, the only ones looking out for you are you and your family. The paternalistic corporation is dead. Some would say that paternalistic company is still alive and well but it’s more like the Black Knight in Monty Python… “It’s only a flesh wound! I’m not dead yet!” “You soon will be…” Either take care of yourself or slowly fade into irrelevance. Is this Machiavellian? Maybe… (By the way, you’re not authorized to use that term unless you’ve read The Prince; it’s a great read). See the next point—companies that “get it” won’t mind you building your skills while you’re part of their organization. Why not? Because they’ll find ways to make use of them. It’s the companies that don’t get it who lose in this scenario. 
  4. Most companies are waiting for you to make the investment in yourself. Be an adult, take the initiative and grow. No one is going to make you do it. You have to do it yourself if you want to reach your destination on your terms. Companies understand turnover. They understand people building their skills to improve their career opportunities. The best companies find ways to create career-enhancing challenges to keep you around and moving toward your destination. Other companies see you walk out the door and wonder what happened. Their loss.

Net net, the world is changing—fast. Change with it and achieve your goals or stagnate and wonder what happened. My $0.02—these days, the only way you’re going to get that retirement Rolex is if you buy it yourself.

—Mike Figliuolo is the Founder and Managing Director of thoughtLEADERS, LLC, where this essay first appeared. He is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Reprinted by permission with minor style edits.

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