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Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Myth of Job Security

You may have noticed that our society has changed radically in the last decade. What you may not have noticed is that in addition to iPhones, texting and mainstream porn, our expectations from society have changed even more. Technological changes are easy to spot. Not so easy to see are the socio-economic alterations that often blind side us without any warning.

Despite man's delusions of permanence, commerce and human behavior remain in a constant state of flux: What's hot today is stone cold tomorrow, while yesterday's old becomes tomorrow's steampunk cool. In my business, it's just as important to watch the environment as the brand existing therein. If social values shift while you're not looking, your brand's relevance could be sunk before its ever launched. So I watch this stuff. Carefully.

Shifting social and commercial environments have been with us since the day man discovered fire. From that point on, not only was our standard of living changed, but our assessment of human intelligence, as well: After all, if it were freezing, only a moron wouldn't come inside and warm himself. Those who refused to accept the changes brought by fire were, literally, left out in the cold to die. It's been that way ever since.

As these changes evolved, they transformed our economies and our expectations. Laws, customs, holidays and even religious practices mutated from alterations in commerce and lifestyles. Some stayed with us for generations. Others, like presenting your neighbor with a wagon-load of horse manure at Michaelmas, simply died from lack of usefulness. So things can and do keep changing. And over the last few decades, one of the most prominent shifts in social expectations has been the issue of job security .

Depending on how old you are, you may recall a time when most kids went to grade school, then high school and if they were lucky, on to college. Graduating either high school or college was met with the same expectation: Get yourself a good job and a good company, work hard, get promoted, earn raises and retire after 30 years with a pension.

Curious as it may seem today, those 30 years were expected to be with the same company.

Well, that used to be the expectation for most of the twentieth century. One job, one company, for your whole life. The idea was that in exchange for a lifetime of service, the company would reward you with job security . It didn't matter if you worked on the factory line or in the corporate boardroom. If you did your job, you'd get your paycheck. In those days, employers understood the benefit of offering job security: A happier employee was a more loyal, harder working employee -- the kind who stayed late and insisted on higher quality output.

Of course, that was before the invention of the spreadsheet and ascension of mindless CFO savants who ran companies into the ground based on cost-cutting and revenue projections. If you look at history, you'll see that job security as we knew it pretty much died quietly some time in the 1980's. That's when the first middle aged workers felt the swing of the axe, wiping out the jobs that they believed -- based on previous generations' expectations -- they'd had for life.

Believe me, it was pretty ugly to watch career men and women in their forties, fifties and sixties scrounging to feed their families after being tossed into the streets. Perhaps the only thing more shocking than losing their careers was the seemingly impossible realization that there was no longer any such thing as job security .

It's been that way ever since. Oh, sure, you can submit your resumé to any one of a hundred huge companies that offer great pay and benefits. They may be huge, multi-national corporations. But that doesn't mean they're offering you anything more than a day's pay for a day's work. That's because the entire notion of job security has been obsolete since 1980. The truth is that while Coca-Cola is huge and profitable, the minute it decides its South American division isn't generating enough as it should, out the door you go.

Does that mean job security is dead? Hardly. It means that job security as we once knew it is dead. Our atomized economy has mutated into a system where the only true job security one can have is that he builds for himself, usually by running his own business. You can own a machine shop, open a law practice or serve pizza out of a truck. You can invent stuff. Manufacture stuff. Buy and sell stuff. It doesn't matter what you do, as long as you're no longer beholden to anyone else's decision as to whether you have a job or not. Yes, you have to find your own customers, but think about it: Wouldn't you rather solve that problem than to live in daily denial based on someone else's determination of your "need to know?"

"Sure," I hear you saying. "That's easy for you to say, Rob, because you've been an independent consultant for a lot of years." And I'd answer you with this: You know why I left the corporate world to start my own gig? Because I watched too many co-workers go by the wayside for no apparent reason, and never knowing whether I'd be the next man walking the plank. The idea of someone else having control over my fate was far more stressful than dealing with total information about my own fate. Working for myself , I endure the very same business conditions everyone else endures, but the decisions affecting me are mine to make.

Look, the days of huge conglomerates aren't over by a long shot. Their profitability may be growing, but their commitment to their employees has shrunk down to nil. Pensions are gone and benefits are evaporating. Which means you're on your own, financially and otherwise, whether you like it or not.

You want job security? There's only one guy you can get it from. He's in the mirror, smirking at you right now.

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