My big fat career 我的远大前程
How individuals can survive in the new world of work
Sep 10th 2011 | from the print edition
“I REWROTE MY entire book after my experience of Spain and seeing what is happening in America, to recast it in terms of survival job-hunting,” says Richard Bolles. His book, “What Colour is Your Parachute?”, was first published in 1970 as a guide to finding a fulfilling job and has sold millions of copies. When Mr Bolles went to Spain in March to give advice on dealing with its indignant army of unemployed, he found that nobody had much idea how to get people back to work.
Even in tough times there are jobs to be had, but applicants have to work far harder to get an employer’s attention, says Mr Bolles. The main thing is to give them hope and teach them the latest techniques for looking for work, of which he lists no fewer than 18. They need to market themselves better and consider a broader range of employers than they might have thought of. Not least, they must “clean up their act on the internet”. Facebook is now routinely scrutinised by human-resources departments, which will be instantly put off if they find anything negative or embarrassing.
Better the devil you know
The good thing about the internet is that it offers a vast amount of information to jobhunters, especially once they have secured an interview. Glassdoor.com, a website launched in 2008 that now covers more than 120,000 companies worldwide, lets employees (anonymously) share information about firms, ranging from what people think about the boss to salary levels and details about the interview process. Last year’s annual Glassdoor list of oddball interview questions was topped by Goldman Sachs, which asked a candidate for an analyst’s job, “If you were shrunk to the size of a pencil and put in a blender, how would you get out?” One Glassdoor contributor’s suggested answer was, “Ask the government to bail me out,” which would probably not have secured the job.
Whom you know has always played an important part in the search for work, but social media are changing it from an art into a science. Last May LinkedIn became one of this year’s hottest initial public offerings, with its share price doubling on the first day of trading, because the social-networking site for professionals started in 2002 has become an integral part of the job market, useful for jobseekers and recruiters alike. It has around 120m members, more than half of them outside America and many of them professionals earning $100,000 a year and above. The website enables them to identify mutual contacts who can introduce would-be employees and employers to each other. Such personal recommendations are thought to have a better chance of success than applications or job offers to total strangers. BranchOut, a start-up launched last year which mostly deals with less exalted jobs, is trying to do something similar, using people’s networks of friends on Facebook to fill the jobs it lists.
Using these social-media tools to find a job is just the first step. According to Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn, the site is increasingly becoming a peer-to-peer career-development network. In future, he predicts, members of LinkedIn doing similar sorts of work will “trade intelligence” about professional best practice with each other. “
The growing need for workers to keep upgrading and adapting their skills is one of the themes of a new book, “The Shift: The Future of Work is Already Here”, by Lynda Gratton of the London Business School. She argues that the pace of change will be so rapid that people may have to acquire a new expertise every few years if they want to be part of the lucrative market for scarce talent. She calls this process “serial mastery” and notes that the current educational system in most countries, from kindergarten through university, does a poor job of equipping people for continuous learning. There is likely to be a wave of innovation in further education, particularly online, that will cater to this need in a more flexible, personalised way than the traditional degree or postgraduate course. For some people, this evolution will take place within a single firm offering long-term employment. But for a growing number of workers the trick will be to jump from one company to another to take advantage of changing skill shortages.
According to Ms Gratton, people will also have to invest more in their personal “social capital”, which will involve three elements. First, they need to build themselves a “posse”, a small group of up to 15 people they can turn to when the going gets rough, says Ms Gratton. They should have some expertise in common, have built up trust in each other and be able to work effectively together.
Second, they need a “big-ideas crowd” who can keep them mentally fresh. This echoes the discussion of “managed serendipity” in last year’s business bestseller, “The Power of Pull”, in which John Hagel and John Seely Brown argued that the successful worker of the future will live in clusters of talented, open-minded people and spend a lot of time going to thought-provoking conferences. Third, they need a “regenerative community” to maintain their emotional capital, meaning family and friends in the real world “with whom you laugh, share a meal, tell stories and relax”.
In a world where more people may work from home, there is a danger that they will become isolated. One remedy is the emergence of “collaborative workspaces” or “hubs” in big cities around the world. These are often more than shared offices with hot desks for people who prefer to be with other people even if they are not working for the same employer. The hub operator may also organise courses for professional development—on marketing or taxation, say—and social events.
Moreover, working from home will not be so isolating if home is next door to where potential workmates live. As Richard Florida argues in “The Rise of the Creative Class”, talented knowledge workers are choosing to cluster together in cities such as New York, Los Angeles, London and Shanghai so they can interact with each other easily, both formally and serendipitously. This has obvious implications for the price of property and other goods and services in areas where these workers choose to live, work, play, mingle and spend some of their ever-growing wealth.
Ms Gratton’s main message—that workers will have to take responsibility for their own future—makes good sense. People who work their way up the corporate ladder in the traditional “Organisation Man” way will increasingly be the exception—and that is surely a good thing. “The pleasures of the traditional working role were the certainty of a parent-child relationship. You could leave it in the hands of the corporation to make the big decisions about your working life,” Ms Gratton explains. Now the world is moving towards an “adult-adult” relationship, which will require “each one of us to take a more thoughtful, determined and energetic approach to exercising the choices available to us”.
Karl Marx thought that much modern industrial work was essentially dehumanising, reducing people to factors of production. These days a growing number of people are doing jobs they find fulfilling because they involve things they actually like doing. This has always been true for sports stars, authors and the like, but the idea that work can be a source of positive pleasure is spreading into other fields.
One indication of this trend is the rapid growth of employment in non-profit organisations, where many jobs offer a sense of social purpose as well as a salary (which in return might be lower than it would otherwise be). Surveys consistently find that many of today’s under-30s in rich countries want to spend their working day trying to make the world a better place as well as being properly paid, and turn down jobs that do not offer such satisfaction. Employers have cottoned on to this and now often mention a “social purpose” in their recruitment advertisements.
The talented, sought-after few, for their part, are encountering problems of their own as work takes up an ever-expanding part of their lives. The waves of lay-offs that followed the global financial crisis left a lot of extra work to do for those who remained, and the ubiquity of communications tools makes it difficult for them to get away from their job. But most employees just want the opportunity to do something they enjoy and balance their work obligations with other parts of their life. Many mothers of young children would like to keep working, at least part-time, and many older people who are still in good health when they reach the formal retirement age would like to continue in a job they like doing. Such preferences are reflected in the growing demand for childcare facilities and greater flexibility in pension arrangements.
Success by association
What about the people who do not command any kind of premium in the marketplace? One strategy could be to find a high-flyer and stick close. Even if joining their posse is out of reach, there are still horses to be fed and watered. The time-poor new rich are generating demand for household staff, and this sort of work can be very well paid. A private secretary and general factotum can earn up to $150,000 a year nowadays. Salaries for standard butlers range from $60,000 to $125,000 and a head butler can make as much as $250,000, according to the website of the Butler Bureau.
As more and more people live to a ripe old age, demand for home-care workers is likely to soar. America will need 2m more of them in the next decade alone, says Ai-Jen Poo of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, an organisation that represents those who work in other people’s homes. But there are winners and losers even among domestic workers. As Ms Poo points out, many of them are badly paid, get little or no time off and are vulnerable to injury because they have had no proper training for lifting immobile people. A high proportion of them are illegal immigrants who have no come-back against ill-treatment. Unless the pay and training of home-care workers are improved, observes Ms Poo, ageing baby-boomers may have trouble finding competent people to look after them in their dotage.
The traditional way for workers to protect themselves against exploitation has been to club together to form a trade union. In rich countries unions have been in decline in the private sector, but they remain powerful in the public sector and there are pockets of growth among people in vulnerable occupations. The National Domestic Workers Alliance, which was formed only four years ago, has already got the state of New York to adopt America’s first bill of rights for people working in family homes, guaranteeing overtime pay, protection from discrimination and harassment, a minimum of one day’s rest a week and a minimum of three days’ paid leave a year—not much, but better than nothing. Similar legislation is being debated in California.
America’s Freelancers Union has also been growing rapidly. Set up in 1995, it now has 150,000 members and expects to add a further 100,000 in the next 18 months. It is very different from a traditional trade union in that it does not engage in collective bargaining with its members’ widely dispersed employers. Instead, it uses its members’ combined buying muscle to negotiate better terms for things like health care and pensions. It also runs fitness centres. In Britain, the Professional Contractors Group does something similar. ODesk has also negotiated benefits packages for contractors using its site.
This may be the start of a “new mutualism movement” that will be very different from traditional trade unionism, says Sara Horowitz, the Freelancers Union’s founder. “If work is going to be more gig-like and short-term, the supportive safety-net institutions will need to be much more about enabling flexibility in the workforce.” This new movement will bring together mutual organisations, co-operatives, friendly societies and social-enterprise start-ups to build a “marketbased safety net” and exercise political influence to get better protection for members. It will get its power from information and aggregation. For example, the Freelancers Union is currently developing a “crowdsourced” system for rating employers on how promptly they pay contractors.