Seven Careers? We Agree: That’s just nonsense


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Expert Perspective by Grahall’s OmniMedia Editorial Board

In his September 4, 2010 article for Wall Street Journal (Seven Careers in a Lifetime? Think Twice, Researchers Say Carl Bialik sensibly questions: “Do Americans really go through careers like they do cars or refrigerators?”

Likely high school and college students asking the question “Fries with that?” do not consider that job, however well paying, to be a career,  And when these same individuals complete their education and go on to be an investment banker they wouldn’t think of the move from “burger flipper” to investment banker as a “career change” .  A job change, yes, a career change, NO.

Likewise the executive compensation consultant who has toiled for some years at Firm A and is recruited to Firm B to do similar work in a new environment (probably with more pay) would also not likely see that as a career change.  A job change, yes, a career change, NO.

So, is the question of career change even really relevant?  We think the confusion over the term “career change” vs. “job change” vs. “whatever ever else people are doing” may be nothing more than an issue of semantics. But the fact that Americans move around with some frequency is relevant to both employees and employers.   
It is a fact that for workers in blue-collar, white-collar, green-collar and even pre-collar jobs there is knowledge gained and responsibilities added as an individual continues in the job.  As Grahall’s Joe Davidson explains: “People develop a portfolio of competencies over time. There may be a different focus to a job with added responsibilities and sometimes even increases in pay.”  

The USA is if not unique then lucky that we have mostly a meritocracy in our workforce.  There is not “caste” system per se where children of butchers all become butchers and children of doctors all become doctors (although no doubt parental background can and does influence a child’s interest in work).  

America offers a great deal of vitality and fluidity in the workforce reinforced by a publically funded education at primary, secondary levels and college levels that has led to variation and range of careers opportunities. 

This is both a blessing and a curse.  With American workers able to change jobs (or careers if you prefer) coupled with the likelihood that every company’s best employees will be heavily recruited, businesses face a retention challenge when unemployment levels are low.   Under those circumstances, the cost of employee retention and the cost of hiring to fill vacancies increases.   But even now with unemployment high, successful companies know they must work to retain their top talent, especially those key individual in positions that create competitive advantage value for the organization.  

We have written before about how the employer/employee “loyalty contract’ has been broken.  Employees will continue with a company for as long as it feels “right” to them, and often not a moment longer (unless they can’t find another job).   Employers will retain workers for as long as they provide value, and not a moment longer.
In the early and mid 20th century an individual might have lasted his entire working life, perhaps 40 years,  at one company in a “cradle to grave” cocoon of weekly paychecks, on the job training and company funded retirement pension plans.  At that time, the life cycle of a product might have been 40 years and these brick and mortar companies seemed eternal.   Today, the life cycle of a product might be three years if a company is lucky.

Work ethic, management style, collaboration, innovation, and any job related anxiety of early 20th century employees were influenced by the Great Depression and by the seemingly unlimited job opportunities in post WWII America driven by the baby boom and increasing consumer demand.  We will be interested to see what, if any, influences our current Great Recession and the rapidly increasing pace of change have on the psyche of a new generation of American workers now in and now trying to enter the workforce. 

There is no doubt that the recession and quickening pace of change will unleash changes in workforce models and rewards programs used by American companies.   Core jobs, perhaps no more than 15% of a company’s employees are those that create competitive advantage for a company, and will demand highly talented workers.   Companies will pay these people more both for the value of their contribution and as a retention strategy.  Employment guarantees may not be unusual for this elite corps of employees.

Companies will develop an increasingly complexity of relationship with outsourcing providers for non-core jobs.   The temporary employee and outsourcing industries will expand and will offer new opportunities to those workers whose jobs do not provide competitive advantage.

Companies and the jobs in them will look much different.   Businesses and workers need to be prepared. 

At the risk of waxing philosophical, we believe that today’s workforce could learn some valuable lessons from both Darwin and Sun Zui. Darwin’s “survival or the fittest” describes today’s worldwide capitalist economy, and Sun Zui advice to accept the conditions (in his case battle conditions, in our case employment conditions) for what they are, not what are desired. 

Our advice to the workforce is to become your own general manager or “Sovereign Individual”.  Here is a roadmap:
1) Evaluate the environment you live in,
2) Determine the key stakeholders in your success,
3) Create your vision, mission and  values;
4) Outline in detail your short and long term business strategy for the deployment of your work efforts,
5) List your capabilities and then set a course to create an individualized strategy which involves appropriate work structures, life/work processes, and your approach to doing things
6) Determine the “Critical Success Factors.” These are the important details that will give your working life meaning.  Employment opportunities and careers should be defined according to your definition of success.

Running your “working self” as an enterprise takes effort, but it is more likely to create a substantial opportunity for success (however YOU define it) than permitting “macro economics” to impact you haphazardly.

Contact Grahall’s OmniMedia Editorial Board at

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