A Changing Working World
Conditions of work have changed dramatically in the past 25 years. I remember how thrilled I was when in 1972 I landed my first job out of college, with the whopping salary of $9,000 per year. I was a budget analyst for a small city government, but we didn't have a computer. We worked out the city budget with desktop calculators. In my next job the situation was much the same. If we needed to make multiple copies of a document, we used a mimeograph or ditto machine. We had to get written approval to use the xerox. We didn't get word processors until the late '80's, and then only the clerical staff were allowed to use them. It wasn't until the '90's that my employer issued personal computers to all staff and set up an internal e-mail system.

Technology changed everything, of course. It made work easier and increased our productivity by many times. Salaries got higher. But it brought about another major change in work conditions that I and many others had never expected: downsizing. Companies no longer needed in fact, couldn't afford so many high-priced workers. So while in the past you would expect to take a job as a permanent employee and spend all your working years with one employer, today you have to plan on working in several different jobs during your career. You might always be on renewable contracts without ever becoming a "permanent" employee of a firm. Even in academia, the idea of tenure is becoming a thing of the past.

While this is a pain in the neck for the employee, it isn't bad for the economy. If businesses are free to retool their staff to meet the needs of a rapidly changing market, they'll be more competitive and the whole economy will do better which translates into more jobs. Job insecurity does have benefits for the employee, too. It forces you to keep on your toes and continue learning as technology and needs change. It also requires that you plan ahead. You can't rely on your company to give you a pension and good health insurance over the long term if you'll only be with that company a few years. You need to start managing your finances so that you have a nest egg to hold you over during periods, perhaps several months at a time, when you're between jobs, as well as in your retirement years.

I worked for a government agency but, like private corporations, it went through its own painful downsizing a few years back. Many folks like myself, who had expected at least ten more years with the agency, suddenly found themselves on the job market again, competing with people in their twenties and thirties. Lots of them still had to worry about paying off mortgages and financing their children's college education. Panic time.

Recently I interviewed a dozen or so colleagues who had been downsized out of their jobs but successfully settled in satisfying new careers, to see if their experiences offered any lessons. They had differing professional backgrounds and went into a variety of second careers, from jobs very similar to those they had left behind to forays into teaching and independent small business. But I did find some factors in common.

Most of them did a great deal of self-examination before they started marketing themselves. They figured out what they had really liked and really disliked about the work they had been doing, then focused in on jobs that would let them to do the things they liked and did well. The idea of doing something they really liked and excelled at - and having more fun at it than they had at the jobs they left - gave them enthusiasm and confidence to start their job searches. And that, of course, made them come across better to new employers. One secretary friend, for example, decided that she loved typing and shorthand but really hated the administrative parts of the job. With the advent of the PC, typing and shorthand are no longer sorely needed skills for many employers, but she found one market for them. She learned to use the stenographic machine and became a court reporter, a field much in demand in our litigious society.

Another common factor among these folks was their lack of concern about status. Some of them had risen to responsible management positions with all the perks that accompany them. In the jobs they sought, they would be contract employees with no seniority, smaller offices, nobody to supervise, and more hands-on "grunt" work than they had done in years. That didn't phase them. In fact, some of them found it refreshing to be relieved of the headaches of managing and back to technical work they found stimulating. I'm one of those. Though I'm earning less as a business writer than I used to as a manager, I"m no longer losing sleep over personnel issues.

A final factor was that they had taken pains to keep in touch with friends and coworkers from over the years. This gave them a wide network of contacts who were pleased to do what they could to help out a friend. And in many cases, it was these friendships that opened up the new job opportunities.

Greatly as the job market has changed in the past 25 years, it's likely to change even faster in the future with the astounding technological advances we see all around us. It pays to be prepared for the possibility of having to seek work not just once but multiple times. In a growing economy, this isn't a fearful proposition if you plan ahead. Keep learning, understand what kinds of work you like and do well, maintain your friendships, and have an open mind about the directions your career path might take.

Written By: Vivikka Molldrem
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