A friend approaching his 60th birthday recently asked me to look at his resume. It was a fine resume, and I helped him make it even better. Part of me wondered, though, why he was going to all the effort. I have a suspicion that he will face a great deal of difficulty finding a job. Certainly, trying to go in through front door, applying for jobs online and talking to recruiters will be a frustrating experience for him. But, I am not worried about him. He will find work.
Do we need jobs or do we need work? That is a question that may define the mid and late career stages of many Americans in the years to come. We were raised to think that a steady job with a stable employer was the ideal career scenario. That may have been true once, but it is largely irrelevant today. Reid Hoffman, CEO of LinkedIn, writing with Ben Casnocha, and Chris Yeh in Harvard Business Review described the new reality well, saying, “Then came globalization and the Information Age. Stability gave way to rapid, unpredictable change. Adaptability and entrepreneurship became key to achieving and sustaining success. These changes demolished the traditional employer-employee compact and its accompanying career escalator in the U.S. private sector; they are in varying degrees of disarray elsewhere.”
Hoffman goes on to suggest that the new employment model should be one where a company hires you for a limited “Tour of Duty” and allows you to show how your perform in order to earn another tour of duty. That’s a pretty harsh universe to work in. Every day at the office will be a gladiatorial contest to see who will leave the building with a job tomorrow. But it’s pretty honest about where most American companies are coming from today. It’s time we all got the memo: You have no right to keep a job any longer than the employer profits from your efforts. (Or, that the employer perceives that it profits from your efforts, which is subjective and unfair but utterly real.)
It’s tempting to bemoan the loss of employer loyalty but the truth is that the long-term tenures at single companies were a recent phenomenon. The steady job at a big company really only emerged in the US after the Civil War, when industrialization and railroads made it profitable to hire large numbers of people in structured, long-lasting careers. This went on until about 1970, when it began to unravel. By the 1980s, the long-term American job had basically died, though it would take another decade or two for people to see fully what was going on.
Where does leave my friend, as well as the rest of us? I say that we are all in great shape, believe it or not. We don’t need jobs. We need work. And there is plenty of work available – It’s just not in the format that we are expecting. Those of us in mid-career can demand good money for our valuable skills. Contract-based employment, entrepreneurship, self-employment, “gig” economy work – these are all ways to earn a living from work, only without a job.
What is a job anyway? A job is a market/legal structure that serves the needs of both employer and employee. You have skills that your employer can profit from. You need income. The job is a way for the employer to give you some stability with regular salary and benefits while capturing a greater share of your value to the business. Think of it like this: You might be worth $200,000 in profits to a business. If you charged the business $200,000 they would make no money. To make money off of you, the employer pays you, say, $70,000 and keeps $130,000 for itself. The employer is justified in doing this because it is absorbing a risk on your behalf. There may be months where the employer makes no money off of you but still pays you. It is advancing you money in regular salary payments in exchange for the right to earn $130,000 from your work.
If the employer is no longer offering a job, it can still profit from your work. However, the formula needs to change. If you are independent, you should charge them $100,000 for your services. They will make less money from you but they will be taking a lot less risk. You, on the other hand, will be absorbing the cash flow risk and living with some uncertainty. As a result, you deserve a higher payment. But, the formula works. In simple terms, this is the difference between a contractor and an employee.
For my friend, I would say he needs to find work, but he shouldn’t fret about not getting a regular job. There’s a lot of work out there for him.