No matter how well you prepare yourself for your career, there’s a rising force that is creating huge barriers for professionals today. College degrees don’t matter. It can’t prepare you for this. Even a great network of professionals and coworkers and years of experience has limited impact in this landscape. This force creates an environment like no other in the history of business. For those in power, it provides the ultimate in flexibility in use of talent but for the talent, it affords some serious confusion in determining, much less traversing, any kind of career path.
Just a few decades ago, my father worked in a 100 year old company for over 34 years. The company had a well defined structure, including a management hierarchy, job roles, payment structures, career paths and incentive plans. I became a part of the company as I grew up. Strangely, when I graduated college and starting working there, I couldn’t see the company I knew as a kid. Changes had already begun and continued every year I worked there. It was the beginning of what we call the “constant change” that we see today.
A softening structure. When I began my first job, the organizational structure was rigid and well-defined. Everyone had their place and knew what their responsibilities were every day. I had a manager to help me when I ran into problems. The organization chart was clear to each employee in many ways. Now, let’s look at the difference within the last ten years. I’ve helped many professionals who work in companies that have no organizational chart. Companies engage in these practices because they say they want to remove barriers and allow their employees to approach anyone at anytime. Having studied a few companies that have utilized this method, I can’t say that is highly successful, as many have failed. While it seems like a good approach, employees quickly learn that there is still a hierarchy. The management structure is well defined, just not put on an organization chart. Decisions are still made by this structure and when things go wrong, it rolls downhill. While some superficial facets change, many things don’t. It’s not all bad though. Employees do have the ability to interact with other business leaders, which can lead to new opportunities. Remember, there’s no structure so there is no real career path either. You have to figure that out for yourself.
It’s hard to roll with my role. Now, more than ever, high achievers are engaging with organizations that want to hire them but don’t want to provide a clear definition of their responsibilities. Companies feel a strong need to remain flexible, which means they need to be able to use their talent any way they see necessary. Role definitions tie their hands and contribute to an inability to change directions quickly. Of course, it’s also possible that companies don’t know exactly what they need so they hire people who can function in ambiguity and aren’t afraid to charge headfirst into the unknown. When I was a kid, I often worked as a farm hand. This is a job that requires you to do whatever the landowner asks you to do. They didn’t ask if you had certain skills or talents. They needed something done and I was the person to do it. Today, we see that even with the best business knowledge and expertise in the world, work boils down to that same simple principle. Somebody has to do it.
There’s no work schedule. This is certainly a more recent trend for companies that has been ushered in by technology that helps us work from anywhere at any time. The typical work week was defined by the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which was established to ban oppressive child labor, set the minimum wage standard and the maximum work week. Of course, with most employment, this doesn’t apply to you. High achievers are often salaried exempt employees, which mean your work schedule isn’t really protected by law, as long as your pay is the same each pay period. You can work 40 hours a week or 100 hours a week. To make this more challenging for you, there is no real definition of work hours. With a cell phone and laptop, you are reachable any time of the day and reachable almost anywhere in the world. Growing up as a kid, my dad had a pretty good schedule. He was an hourly employee and worked from 6AM to 3PM. He could easily plan his life because the schedule was well defined. Today’s work schedule is ill defined and makes your life a little more unpredictable.
Working ‘at-will.’ As if your career wasn’t already lacking of any real structure, states have created laws that allow employers to dismiss you for any reason and without warning. Yep, that means they can walk into your office on Friday and terminate your employment without any justification. Friday is a good day because it doesn’t disrupt the normal workday of your coworkers should you be terminated without reason. So, the length of your employment at any company is always at risk. Many years ago, this wasn’t much of a risk for the workforce but now many managers have figured out that balancing the bottom can include terminating a few employees to keep their division’s budget in the black. I know we are all professionals here but when your job is on the line, you might be forced to do things you wouldn’t normally do, like terminating employees.
All of these factors have created a completely amorphous environment, void of any reasonable predictability, which further perpetuates the need for change. We can’t see where we are going and that makes us uneasy. Professionals remain in a job for 2 or 3 years but choose to leave because their future in the organization continues to remain undefined. We are creatures of habit and embrace predictability, to some extent. We’ve built our lives around our jobs and when that stability becomes unstable, so do our thoughts on satisfaction and happiness. We once had a system that built careers on a visible, logical progression. You went to college to earn a degree and then entered the workforce in your field. After years of work in that field, you were promoted up the chain in a career that lasted a lifetime. Bonuses and promotions were an annual part of your growth. Today, we see more job uncertainty than we ever have but it appears to be occurring in times with sufficient economic stability. Nonetheless, young graduates will find themselves entering a workforce that struggles to define what it can offer in return for their efforts. Whatever it is, it is likely to be short term.