Avoiding Long-Term Commitment: The New Job Market

I was surprised to learn that most college presidents last about six years before moving on. A friend, who consults in the space, explained, “in many institutions, it’s just an impossible job.” Browsing through my LinkedIn connections, my first connection (his last name begins with “A”) is Len, a PR guy. Len has occupied nine different jobs since 1986; his longest stint was 6 years, and in today’s marketplace, that seems to be both (a) rare and (b) a long time. The February, 2012 issue of Fast Company ran an article entitled “The Four-Year Career” and declared “career planning” to be “an oxymoron.” The article points out that the average U.S. worker’s median level of job longevity is just 4.4 years.

The job market can be enormously frustrating, but deep down, most people understand that the economy is shifting–and that companies require employees for a period of years, not decades. In five years, Facebook has increased its her base from 10 million to 800 million; the first million Palm Pilots sold out in 18 months, and the first million iPhone 4s units sold in 24 hours; eBooks accounted for 1% of consumer trade books sold in 2008, and now, the number is over 20%. As the pace of change accelerates, the need for the same employees in the same seats evaporates. And, to counterbalance, as the pace of change quickens, the reasons why an employee would want to remain in the same seat for, say, five years, become less compelling for individuals in pursuit of active, productive careers.

But wait! There are at least two more pieces to the puzzle.

Cheryl Edmonds, featured in the Fast Company article about Four-Year Careers. To read the article, click on Cheryl’s picture.

The first is career switching. Not job swapping, but wholesale shifts in careers. Returning to the Fast Company article, Here’s Cheryl Edmonds, age 61, who shifts from engineering (1977) to a retail art business (1988) to corporate marketing at HP (1995), then heads to China to teach English (2009) before landing a fellowship with Metropolitan Family Services in Portland, OR (2011) in hopes of finding a new career in the nonprofit sector. Whether the person is 30 or 60, we’re seeing lots of these stories–people navigating the career marketplace as they might choose their next dog (whose longevity is likely to be longer than any current job), or vacation.

The second missing puzzle piece is formal education. Old thinking: go to college, train for a career, get a job, go up the ladder. Now, not so much, certainly not for a large population of liberal arts majors, and nowadays, even law school graduates are encountering a much-changed market for their trained brains. How to provide a proper college education for the likes of Cheryl, above? Marketing major? Engineering major? Liberal arts major? Get a degree, work for a few years, get another? I know a young woman whose college debt exceeded $100K, paid off half of it by taking a corporate job in supply chain management (thrilling!), hated it, sold real estate for a minute-and-a-half, then ended up in nursing school where she picked up a new $50K in debt to add to the unpaid $50K from her first degree. So here’s a system that’s not working very well at all.

On the positive side, all of this tumult leads to a far higher degree of personal control over one’s life than ever before. It also leads to a way of thinking that is counterintuitive for many Americans–if you are going to enjoy this degree of control, you need to think differently about your financial expectations, and about the management of your money. Multiple jobs in a single industry–you can expect to earn more money with every step up the ladder. Multiple careers–you will experience lateral steps, and you may earn less money in the next job, perhaps for a while, perhaps for a long time. (Freedom is not free.) For the entrepreneurs and business wizards among us, the constant jumps present fabulous opportunities to build wealth. For those who do not want their lives to be dominated by work, for whom a 40 hour week is more than enough, the less-fluid government and nonprofit sectors may be better places to work, but even employers are beginning to think twice about the ways they have operated for so long.

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