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The End of the Job as We Know It

By Bruce Tulgan

The idea of a career spanning 20 or 30 years at one company has all but disappeared. So what does this mean for the generation now entering the workforce? According to Bruce Tulgan, it means a workforce of knowledge workers acting as free agents with employers seen as "clients" and jobs as "projects." And this is a good thing!

It's no longer about climbing the corporate ladder at one company -- it's about managing your options.

I was a lawyer for 428 days, then, at age 26, I retired. After going through 20 years of school and then landing a job at a big law firm in New York, I realized that my career path was obsolete. As you think about making the transition from college to the world of work, ask yourself what kind of career you've been anticipating. Are you prepared for the workplace of the future? Or have you been imagining a career in the workplace of the past? Virtually everything we have been taught to expect is based on the workplace of the past, and all of that is coming to an end. Thank goodness.

Our parents' generation came of age in an economy dominated by large companies with clear corporate ladders that workers expected to climb over the course of their 20- or 30-year careers. Back then, you could expect employment relationships to be long-term, maybe even lifelong. If you gave the right company your loyalty, talent, and hard work, you could expect to be rewarded with job security, a decent pension, and even Social Security.

The workplace of the past was arranged in neat little packages called jobs. You could expect a job description that set boundaries and defined your responsibilities. You knew exactly what was "not your job" and, therefore, not your problem.

These old jobs fit into linear careers. You started with an entry-level job and moved along from one raise to the next, from one middle-management position to the next. It made sense to get a job at a good company and stay there - pay your dues, climb the ladder, and become part of the club.

I am pleased to report that there is no club anymore because the old-fashioned job is being replaced by new ways of working. Don't be alarmed, this is good news. There is still plenty of work to be done, it's just that, as the management guru William Bridges would say, most of the work is being "dejobbed."

People of our generation are starting their working lives during an exhilarating period of change. Technology and globalization have yielded chaotic markets, fierce competition, and unpredictable staffing needs-the most profound changes in the economy since the Industrial Revolution. This environment has caused business leaders to turn the industrial model of work on its head: downsizing, restructuring, and reengineering have altered the nature of work and transformed the relationship between employers and employees. Temping, leasing, outsourcing, consulting, and running small to mid-sized businesses are the fastest-growing forms of work in today's economy. These trends are freeing work from the confines of the "job" and the career path that went with it. While these conventions may have suited an industrial economy (the system worked for more than 100 years), they are now all but extinct.

As the economy changes, our generation has the rare and historic opportunity to transform the meaning of success. A new career path is emerging, especially among young people who never played the work game by the old rules. Those with marketable skills see themselves as free agents. Employers are now "clients" and jobs are "projects," as workers move from one opportunity to the next.

Bela Barner, 31, provides one example of this new approach to success. Barner worked for a mega consulting firm for just 18 months before he was ready to do something different. After some research and self-marketing, he secured his next project. Barner was soon on his way to Budapest to work with the National Service League, an American non-profit organization that manages short-term public interest projects in fledgling democracies. One year later, Barner persuaded his former bosses to take him back. He stayed for a year before moving on to a boutique consulting firm. "I like to think of myself as an independent contractor," says Barner. "I work hard on a project, cash out, then reassess and renegotiate." With every step, he moves away from the workplace of the past and creates his own version of success.

Our generation is coming of age in the midst of chaos and uncertainty. Everything about work is changing. Scary? Perhaps. But it was like this when we got here. And most of us like it this way. As much as you may be alarmed by the lack of obvious career paths, isn't there a part of you that dreads the idea of getting a "job"? Who wants to get up every morning, put on a suit, and go to the same office for the same eight hours, just to climb someone else's corporate ladder? No thanks. The radical changes in today's economy are leveling the playing field for our entire generation. What matters in the new economy is your ability to add value-and to sell that value. Your success is not defined by the hierarchy of a corporation or any other establishment. Your security will come from options rather than commitments, from mobility rather than stability.

While you think about moving from one project to the next, prepare to sell your most valuable talents on the open market. Every untapped resource is waiting to be mined. Every unmet need is an opportunity to add value. Every person is a potential customer.

One strategy is to actively reinvent yourself. If you find yourself in a support role, answering phones and making photocopies, don't lose heart-just reinvent your position. Technology is eliminating many of the distinctions that once separated primary tasks from support tasks. Chances are that your boss will give you as much responsibility as you are willing to take on. Regardless of your title, your position is defined by your actions. Identify important tasks and responsibilities, and seize them. Be the person decision-makers depend on. If you make yourself invaluable, money, status, and authority will follow.

Another option is to change jobs without leaving your present company. As a professional in the new economy, you'll probably change jobs throughout your career, but changing jobs doesn't have to mean changing companies. Wherever you work, get to know as many decision-makers as you can, be on friendly terms with lots of people, and avoid cliques. If you use several skill sets at once, you won't be pigeonholed, so try to juggle as many tasks, responsibilities, and projects as you can. When one assignment is nearing completion, create a detailed proposal for a new one. Even if your proposal is not accepted, you may inspire another project related to your original idea.

Every industry demands people who have specialized skills and knowledge. In light of this demand, a growing elite of "knowledge-workers" are using their expertise to transform themselves, and work, into sources of added value. To become one of these people, keep your knowledge current through continuous learning. Wherever you work, whatever you do, you can gain responsibility, creative freedom, and status by gaining knowledge.

One 29-year-old, whom we will call Amy, escaped a career rut by becoming a knowledge worker. After working in the human resources department of a large corporation for two years, Amy grew bored with her job. "I hated the number-crunching side of human resources," she says, "and I was looking around for career options." Amy was interested in law, but wasn't ready to go to law school. Then she overheard her boss mention that he wasn't getting any guidance from the legal department on two relatively new federal statutory schemes, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). That comment motivated Amy to take the next step. "I studied the ADA and FMLA and then put together a memo to my boss on what these laws required us to do," she says. "That sort of made me the ADA/FMLA guru around here." It also gave her a new lease on her job.

Don't worry - it's not necessary to memorize something as esoteric as a federal statute to find your niche as a knowledge worker. Knowledge work is not about what you do, but how you do it. No matter what you do, you can increase your success by marketing yourself in terms of your expertise. The best-case scenarios involve learning something you are genuinely interested in. If you do what you love, you'll learn voraciously and passionately. That is always your best shot at knowing more than most people do about a subject. And that's all it means to be an expert. Selling your expertise will be the easy part.

Even leveraging your knowledge of your current job gives you new options. Consider leaving your job without really leaving. You might be able to stop working full-time while continuing to add value as a part-time employee, telecommuter or consultant. You already know the people in the organization and how they like things done. You have valuable skills that allow you to handle your responsibilities. It's an added bonus if you have a rapport with certain clients or colleagues that the organization doesn't want to lose.

If you're just starting out, it's likely that, before you turn 30, you will experience at least one good job and at least one bad job. You will think about dropping out of the rat race for a while and going back to school. You may consider starting your own business. Most of the time, you'll be juggling all these thoughts at once. Just remember that whether you stay at one company or move around, as long as you embrace change, you'll find opportunity everywhere you look.

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