In days past, employment was in many ways an uncomplicated business. We were farmers or miners, factory workers or shopkeepers. We clocked on and we clocked off, and everybody had a clearly defined role.
It was secure, it was predictable – and not overly fulfilling. People defined themselves by their jobs, and it was not uncommon for a man to do the same thing day in, day out for 40 years until he shuffled off to retirement with his golden retirement clock.
Fast forward to today, and you see a very different situation. Multiple temporary jobs, zero hour contracts, unpaid internships – welcome to the era of the gig economy.
On top of this, recent research from life insurance firm LV indicates that the average Briton entering the workforce today can expect to have nine jobs – including one major career change – across a career that spans 48 years. That equates to a change in role every five years.
Clearly, then, the game has changed. Not only are fewer of us entering employment in the first place (a trend that will only continue to grow over the coming years), but those of us who do are faced with a work environment in which the stability and predictability that defined employment in the past has been significantly eroded.
If you ask me, however, we are a little too ready to see what has been lost. The job for life. The unassailable income. The generous pension. And a little too slow to appreciate the benefits of a new way.
Even if the work situation of the past was admittedly financially very cushy for those who did find good employment, that does not mean that it was without its downsides. People’s whole identities would be bound up with a particular role. And surely it must have encouraged a certain degree of complacency for those who did make it into steady employment…after all, who wants to take on a new challenge when they have a cast iron, well paid job and a fat pension waiting for them?
The issue, perhaps, was that the employment of the past delivered its rewards exclusively in the form of financial comfort and security: and, because of that, there was no expectation that it should deliver anything else. This is, after all, the whole basis of the traditional work-life dichotomy: you do your work and then you live your life. The two are compartmentalized, wholly separated one from the other.
All well and good if you are willing to accept the trade-off, but it is interesting to see the shift that has taken place now that employment increasingly fails to offer the same levels of financial comfort and security it did in the past. Having lost the almost effortless and unthinking financial security of yesteryear, our relationship with work has been steadily changing, and this is manifest in the comparatively recent developments of flexitime working, telecommuting, quality of life fringe benefits, and, most notably, the idea that a job should bring at least some degree of personal fulfilment.
All around, more and more people are embracing a mindset that places the emphasis on factors that go beyond financial compensation, and I’d like to offer my thoughts on how you can do the same to negotiate the world of work to your own advantage.
Job competition is fiercer than ever. You’re going to be changing roles, probably careers, several times in your life. And for all you know, your job could be replaced by a computer or a robot within the next decades. It’s a precarious world, and the best way to equip ourselves is to develop a broad range of useful skills ourselves.
If I’ve been in the same job for 20 years, for instance, and honed a certain specialized skill to mastery, what am I going to do if I’m laid off? I am totally reliant on finding another job in that same field, as that is the only skill I possess. This is, as far as I am concerned, extremely risky.
Instead, you want to find ways to branch out your skills and progress at the same time. I’ll attempt to use myself as an example. My first job out of university was as a full-time translator. Clearly, it was originally my knowledge of a foreign language that led to translation. Translation led to editing. Editing led to writing. And so on. One skill branches out from another. Similarly, I started out employed, then went freelance. And from freelance I am now in the process of starting up my own business. One thing builds on the other, and it is essential that you keep learning and progressing as you go.
With all the resources on the internet, there are many skills that you can develop on the side; you never know when they might come in useful. Things I’ve taught myself along the way include bookkeeping, website design, e commerce, photo editing, basic graphic design, and email marketing.
Sometimes you might have to take a pay cut or endure financial uncertainty to learn new skills (starting up a new business springs to mind), but you should always remember that the skills you have – and develop – are going to be your primary asset in today’s turbulent marketplace.
2. Personal alignment
Keeping the development of skills in mind, one of the keys to a successful working life is surely to pursue a direction that fits in with your individual strengths and aspirations. One of the big upsides of our less predictable careers today is the chances we have to turn, experiment, and pivot. Changing direction is that much easier, and there is a flexibility and opportunity that simply did not exist before.
This is a huge advantage because learning how to best harness your skills and talents is a time consuming process. It is only as you keep developing new skills that you start to learn what you enjoy, and what you avoid, what you’re naturally good at, and the things with which you struggle. And slowly, you hopefully progress towards what it is you are meant to be doing.
By combining the ongoing development of new skills with your natural strengths and inclinations, you are able to grow and progress as an individual – and, with any luck, put paid to the notion that your job and your life are elements that stand in opposition to one another.
I am not saying that your job can be fulfilling all of the time – or that it does not require a lengthy and deliberate process to get there. What I am saying is that, for those who consciously develop and harness their skills in the right way for them, we have it in our power to live a life that the previous generations could only envy, a life in which we no longer work to live, or live to work, but pursue our own unique path.
As L.P. Jacks famously wrote: “A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play; his labour and his leisure; his mind and his body; his education and his recreation. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence through whatever he is doing, and leaves others to determine whether he is working or playing. To himself, he always appears to be doing both.”
Cambridge graduate. Writer and thinker. Life enthusiast.