Make Way for a Tough New Work Environment

On a trip back home in 2008 I had lunch with an old friend, Joanie. She talked about the differences between the life her father, Bob, had and the one her son, Jared, was having.

“My dad didn’t really like to work,” she said. “He always put in the minimum number of hours, called in sick whenever possible and did just enough to keep his job. He worked in a manufacturing job and, like all the hourly employees, he was protected by the union. He had no special training or education. He didn’t have to. He assumed he had the job until he retired, and he was right.

“In hindsight, even though he didn’t care much for his job, Dad had a pretty easy life. We lived in a small but nice home in a safe neighborhood in the suburbs. Dad started working fresh out of high school and he was able to retire in his early 50s. He had a great pension and a health care plan that took care of him and my mom for more than 30 years after he stopped working.”

Joanie’s voice changed as she talked about the life her son was confronting.

“Jared has three years of college and works as much overtime as he can at a huge distribution center outside of town. He’s 26 years old and still lives at home. He doesn’t have a union protecting him. He doesn’t have a pension plan, and the health plan is decent, not great. The way it looks now, Jared’s chances of having the same home, security and bene?ts that my dad took for granted are slim, even if he gets married and he and his wife both work.”

Joanie wanted Jared to be able to buy a house like his grandfather’s, work 40 hours a week, take four weeks of vacation a year and have lifetime health care and pension bene?ts.

Here’s the problem: Those jobs don’t exist anymore. They’ve been exported beyond our borders without the same salaries, security and bene?ts. And even if the jobs have stayed inside the U.S., many of the long-term bene?ts that made them so attractive have been stripped out by cost-cutting and global competition.

And those jobs are not coming back. That’s the cold water I’d throw in the face of every man or woman who thinks his or her future can be understood by looking to the past.

The forces that created this new high-stress environment are not mysterious. The biggest is globalization. Westerners not only compete with other Americans and Europeans for the best jobs, they have to compete with a wave of smart, highly motivated candidates from India, China and Eastern Europe.

Another factor is the gap in compensation between the top people in an organization and everyone else. CEOs and other C-level officers’ income has increased at a much greater pace than that of middle managers and staff professionals. That makes competition for the top jobs more brutal. With more people competing at the narrow top of the pyramid, everyone works harder and longer.

A third factor is decreased job security. In the early 1980s, I did a study of dismissals at IBM. At that time, IBM would ?re people for ethical violations, but almost no one was fired for poor performance. This was no different than what was happening at AT&T, General Motors, Eastman Kodak and other pillars of corporate America. Now, nonperformance can bring severe and immediate punishment.

The result is a new breed of professional employee, more driven and hardworking, yet more insecure than ever before. Young professionals will work longer hours, even if they don’t like their jobs — it’s not like the old days when they could have a “second life” outside of work and ?nd meaning and happiness.

When your competition is already responding to a tough new environment by working harder and longer, you need unique tools to separate yourself. Passion will not be an option — it will become a requirement.

Marshall Goldsmith is an authority in helping successful leaders achieve positive, lasting change in behavior. He is the author or co-editor of 31 books, including MOJO. He can be reached at editor@talentmgt.com.