The Era of the Career is Over

Folks, we are in a new world, a new economy, that doesn’t have room for sentiment or loyalty.  Fifty years ago you could start a job at a company as a pimple-faced teen and shuffle out the door as a pensioner at the end of your career without ever having filled out the ‘Previous Employer’ section on your CV.  No more.  The career employee is now a quaint anachronism like spats or the mimeograph.  In today’s economy everyone is a contractor, which is little surprise, given the gut-punch costs of healthcare and benefits.  While employee loyalty may still exist in tatters among the workforce, employer loyalty is gone.  I saw a fifteen-year employee of an architecture firm, who had just won that firm a prestigious award with a building he designed, get laid off on a Monday afternoon and get told to pack up his stuff by the end of the day.  No gold Rolex, no send-off party.  He had to slink out the back door like a thief, a scarlet letter splashed across his back.

Does this sound like sour grapes?  Look around at your coworkers and ask how many have switched jobs in the last ten years.  Last five years.  Last 12 months.  No company can afford to keep any employee a day longer than they are profitable.  The razor’s edge of just-in-time payroll can cut deep, friends.  I’m not advocating that everyone work with one foot out the door.  No, you should work with both feet out the door.  Don’t get comfortable, don’t let your resume or contacts get dusty, don’t think that you’re part of a family.  I think “Lean In” really means to lean in from the street, do your job, and keep walking.  The career is over-it’s all just a series of cobbled together jobs that makes your resume unfold like an accordion with previous employers and references.

This isn’t to malign employers, since they are dealing with the uncomfortable reality of capitalism.  Everybody is either living paycheck to paycheck or standing on those who do.  It’s far easier to pay contractors and not have to worry about benefits or birthday parties or termination notices.  Think of your office as a lobby, with people filtering in and out and making small talk.  You might get to know the guy at the coffee stand, or the lady watering the plants, but you’re not exactly inviting them to your baby’s christening.  There’s no esprit de corps, it’s just strangers passing in the trenches.

What to do, then, in this new era of contractors?  You can work for yourself or you can make your own collective, your own lobby.  Then you might get to like the plant-watering lady and the dude with the swirling floor polisher.  You might think you could make a career, have employees who will stick with you to the very end.  But that time is gone.  Make your friendships and enjoy your work but don’t take off your lifejacket.

Writer, architect, father, husband.

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