There Is No Safe Job -- Perhaps There Never Was

Last Updated Oct 19, 2010 10:33 AM EDT

In case you didn't notice, things have changed. Not just the big stuff, like unemployment, net-worth shrinkage and that scary, mysterious deep-sea monster called "globalization." I'm referring to the subtle but fundamental changes that affect your job, your professional status and what we used to call your "career trajectory." Welcome to the New Order.

To begin with, forget whatever you may have believed about "levels" of progress. Levels don't exist any more...and maybe never did, except in your mind. It doesn't matter if you were a superstar five years or even five months ago. This is Instant Karma. You might have achieved dizzying heights in an earlier lifetime, but lately it's all in the Right Now.

What does that mean? It means you can drink coffee, but you can't really go "on break." It means there is little or no leveraging of previous accomplishments. Yes, I said that. Past performance has been hammered as flat as your retirement account. Crazy, huh? You say you slew the dragon and saved an entire village from destruction? When was that, last week? Fuhgeddaboudit. We're over it...and you need to get over it, too. Try proving your value today. If every single morning at work feels like an audition for a play that is yet to be written, you've got the idea.

Loyalty, as I'm sure you've come to realize, hasn't been worth anything for a long time. And it's worth significantly less now. If we don't care what you did last week, why would your 17 years of tireless service be a matter of interest? The assumption is that you're coasting...so get to work!

Ah, work. Again, I advise you to watch your back. Get ready to be judged not on productivity, but on popularity. This isn't an original observation. Pragmatists have been no doubt warning idealists for countless centuries that existence in general and enterprise in particular are not meritocracies. When actress Meryl Streep addressed the 1983 graduating class at Vassar, she cautioned that real life is not like college:
Real Life is actually a lot more like high school. The common denominator prevails. Excellence is not always recognized or rewarded. What we watch on our screens, whom we elect, are determined to a large extent by public polls. Looks count. A lot. And unlike the best of the college experience, when ideas and solutions somehow seem attainable if you just get up early, stay up late, try hard enough, and find the right source or method, things on the outside sometimes seem vast and impossible, and settling, resigning oneself, or hiding and hunkering down becomes the best way of getting along.
More talented writers than yours truly have been quick to note a recent leap in visibility of this rather shabby metaphysical truth. Not only should you avoid telling co-workers (and others) what you think is lacking -- people also need to feel that you basically like them. As Colonel Cathcart and Colonel Korn told Yossarian in Catch 22, "Just like us! We're not bad guys! All you have to do is like us!"

Since no one appears to know what's going to succeed and what isn't business-wise, your communication style is now far more important than what you have to say. People don't value your input nearly so much as your cooperation. Simply stated, it's all about three things:
  1. The other person.
  2. What you can do for them.
  3. How you make them feel about themselves.
Any advice on how to handle these sweeping changes without going insane? There are probably a number of techniques and I invite readers to share them. I can tell you what works for me: I don't expect to be taken seriously. Yup, that's it. And maybe you shouldn't, either. Groucho often said, "If you find it hard to laugh at yourself, I'd be happy to do it for you."
  • Mark Jaffe

    As President of Wyatt & Jaffe, Mark Jaffe has been called one of the 'World's 100 Most Influential Headhunters' by BusinessWeek magazine. His firm, Wyatt & Jaffe, works with a select list of financial services, high-tech and consumer companies worldwide and has been called one of the 50 leading retained search firms in North America.

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