The End of the Career as a Stage in Life?

I’ve had several conversations and read several pieces across the web on changing careers, preparing for retirement, and generally, what we’re supposed to be doing with our working lives.  I’m an intern and full time PhD student, so I’m still in the highly fluid state of an early career.  But, I’ve learned that usually, around this time, people begin to settle into what becomes their “career.”

The career is an odd thing really.  It’s the product of the need for job security for individual employees and a part of the corporate bargain (typically with unions) to take care of the worker in exchange for dedicated service.  It’s protection from at-will work typical of piecework, temp work, support work, and other forms of what is now called “precarious labor” and is a luxury of sorts for the middle and upper-middle classes and some members of the working class.  The classic career was built on tenure and guaranteed by the pension.  So long as you gave several decades of your life to a single company, that company paid for you to live the last decade or two of your life without the need to work.  Today, tenure doesn’t guarantee job security and few people have pensions.  The bright side of this is that the golden handcuffs are much looser than they were ten or twenty years ago.

Everyone with a decent-paying job knows the golden handcuffs – feeling locked into a job or company because the pay and benefits are too good to give up, even if you hate the work.  With the demise of pensions and decreasing importance of tenure, workers’ material ties to an organization do not increase over time like they used to.  At the age of 50, you can move to another job and take your retirement with you.  If you’re moving into a job/career that you’re good at or that’s in higher demand, you may even earn a higher income.

What this means is that the people riding out a job, feeling like they threw their lives away, or who say that work is a sacrifice you make to live the life you want in retirement; are less and less able to justify that perspective.  It’s not that these feelings have gone away.  It’s that workers are not as locked into a job like they once were.  Right now, many people are discovering this in the middle of their careers.  However, I find few young people (including myself) or mid-career people who see themselves changing directions when they’re 45, 50, or 60.  But, there’s less and less reason not to start thinking about it and more and more reason to start planning for it.

Right now, the (middle-class western) life course is to go to college, get married, have kids, settle on a career, retire.  If we were to put ages to these, they would be something like: 18, 24, 27, 35, 65.  Notice how there’s thirty years between the time one starts a career and then retires where nothing is supposed to change in the life course (not so oddly enough “the mid-life crisis” occurs in the middle of this).  In part, this is an artifact of the career system whereby the same thing is supposed to happen for thirty years.  (For those who say a lot happens in those thirty years, you’re right.  But seldom are promotions, vacations, children’s graduations, or personal accomplishments as life-defining as going to college, having children, or getting married.  That’s what makes these ‘stages’ in the life course. Things like divorce happen, but they’re not ‘supposed’ to happen.)   In a sense, when we signed up for the career with a pension and tenure ladder, we created a thirty year period of stasis.  As those supports have gone away, we now have an opportunity to rethink how we want to live our lives during those thirty years.  In a sense, we now have an extra thirty years to define and redefine our lives in the same fundamental ways that we did with school, marriage, our first professional job, and children.

If you’ve followed me up to this point and agree that moving the 401k and finding better, higher paying jobs in your 40s and 50s is possible, the question now is: what do you want to do with your extra 30 years?

I do feel the need to assuage hiring managers (and economists) that the idea of such worker mobility is actually a good thing.  And, I don’t think I have to say much.  While replacing an employee is expensive (several thousand dollars in replacement costs, lost wages’ worth of work, and lost value in expertise) no one wants an unproductive or under-productive employee who isn’t engaged in their work – the employee who rides out their tenure to retirement or who only skirts by with the minimum.  (Actually, few people work like this.  People generally hate being bored and feeling like what they do is meaningless for very long.  We’re good at finding meaning and energy in co-workers, family, or something else and bring that into the job).  But, in a society without careers, employees are increasingly making an active choice to work in a particular job with a particular company.  If employees can move more frequently and define their lives in such flexible ways, those who stay are those who want to be there.  The premise of employee engagement, as consultants are so quick to emphasize, is exactly people’s ability to regularly affirm themselves through work.

So, as work becomes more flexible with the decreasing role of tenure and flexibility of retirement savings, we may want to consider getting rid of the idea of a career as we’ve conceptualized it.  In this increasingly flexible world, we’ve been given an extra thirty years (or a full 1/3rd of our lifespan) to redefine ourselves.  What would you do with all that time?

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