The World of Work is Changing – There Isn’t A Clear Path Anymore to Well Paid Meaningful Work

“There are no good jobs anymore, just great ones and boring, wearing soul destroying ones” – Larry Smith TED talk Why You Will Fail To Have a Great Career.

The world of work is changing. The changes are important.

If you are to find meaningful career success, you need to understand these changes.

The path to career success used to be.

  1. Work hard at school.
  2. Get into university to do a ‘useful’ degree
  3. Then work hard at university
  4. Impress any potential employers you come across during your studies
  5. Get a job, preferably in a well respected organisation
  6. Once you get a job, work hard in that role. Try to be efficient, helpful and reliable.
  7. Repeat this over and over and eventually you will get to where you want to go.

This path was by no means easy. It was hard work and at times daunting. But it felt like you had control over whether you were successful or not. The things you needed to do were possible and it was clear what they were. The work you did was often interesting and meaningful. You could see yourself making progress. You could see that your work had an impact on the world.

That formula worked for many decades. My generation saw our parents do it. We did it. Many of my generation are encouraging their children to do it.

But gradually and then quite suddenly things changed.

The world of work has changed in a number of important ways. The information in this blog post might be a bit tough to face, but, if we are to have meaningful success, we need to see the world as it is, rather than as we want it to be. So brace yourself. Let’s look at what is going on.

Organisations Have De-layered and Downsized

Organisations have changed and are continuing to change. It is getting harder and harder to rise the corporate ladder because the ladder has changed:

‘Organizational changes over the last two decades have … reduced the relevance of some traditional objective indicators of career success. For instance, trends such as organizational delayering, downsizing, and outsourcing have lessened the scope (Evans, Gunz, & Jalland, 1997) and relative desirability (Hall, 2002; Reitman & Schneer, 2003) of hierarchical progression through promotion. ‘ Heslin (2005)

White Collar and Professional Work has Changed

White collar and professional workers used to experience their work as mostly okay and often rewarding and interesting. Now, over and over we hear the same story. ‘I am so unhappy at work’. ‘It feels meaningless. I work long hours and I am really busy but nothing meaningful ever seems to get accomplished’. A report by Deloitte suggests that 87.7% of employees don’t feel passionate about their work. A Gallup survey of 100 million American workers found that 18% of Americans are actively disengaged from their work. They are unhappy and actively don’t want to be there. Another 52% are just going through the motions.

It isn’t just front line and lower level staff who are experiencing this feeling of lack of engagement and meaning, middle managers are also struggling. In the past, there was a finite period where the going was tough but if you hung on and persisted, then you would end up with an interesting and well paid role. Now, despite lots of hard work, many people end up in a job that is just okay. And the unlucky ones find themselves stuck in unpleasant and unrewarding roles or are suddenly retrenched.

‘They call it ‘9-5’. It’s never 9 to 5, there’s no free lunch break at those places, in fact, at many of them, in order to keep your job you don’t take lunch. Then there’s overtime and the books never seem to get the overtime right and if you complain about that, there’s another sucker to take your place. And what hurts is the steadily diminishing humanity of those fighting to hold jobs they don’t want but fear the alternative worse. People simply empty out. They are bodies with fearful and obedient minds…..Early on, when I was quite young and going from job to job I was foolish enough to sometimes speak to my fellow workers: ‘Hey, the boss can come in here at any moment and lay all of us off, just like that, don’t you realise that?’They would just look at me. I was posing something that they didn’t want to enter their minds.Now in industry there are vast layoffs…They are layed off by the hundreds of thousands and their faces are stunned:

I put in 35 years…`They never pay the slaves enough so they can get free, just enough so they can stay alive and come back to work.’  Charles Bukowski in Reach for the Sun: Selected letters 1978-1994 (This is a letter Bukowski wrote to John Martin, an editor who offered him $100 a month to quit his day job.

The Office Production Line

One change in the workplace that is often overlooked is the office production line. The changes that blue collar workers had to contend with in the early part of the 20th century are now spreading to professional and white collar work. Work is being divided up into smaller and smaller slices. Employees are given responsibility for these smaller tasks instead of the total project. Worse than that, how they approach their work is becoming more and more constrained and standardised. The great satisfaction of seeing a whole piece of work from start to finish, of creatively solving a problem and producing something that feels like it has your stamp on it, is disappearing.

“The core issue, is that our companies are built on a model of scalable efficiency that is pervasive throughout the operations, organization, strategy and mindset of executives and profoundly hostile to tapping into and amplifying the passion of individuals – emphasis on predictability, tight specification of all work, standardization of all work and tight integration of all work activity – where’s the room for passion?” John Hagel, Deloitte

This is particularly challenging for white collar work because organisations haven’t worked out how to do this well. When factories came into being, it was necessary for parts to become standardised, so they would fit together well. The process to get from a piece of sheet metal to a car was mapped out and the steps were then put in the most efficient order.  But in our office production line, the different pieces of work that people do, often don’t fit together well. People’s deadlines and priorities often don’t dovetail, so we end up waiting for the key input to our work and then miss our own deadlines.

Our work is becoming more and more interdependent with others but communication between the different parts of the office ‘factory’ isn’t effective enough to deal with the complexity of the tasks. More and more time is spent in meetings trying to sort out – ‘What are we trying to do? How will we do it? Who is responsible for what?’

As work becomes more and more interlocked, conflict becomes more intense. If my capacity to do good work is dependent on you doing good work, then I am going to get cranky with you when you are slow delivering or fail to meet my standards.

Flatter structures; cross team functioning; high rates of staff turnover and lack of time make it harder and harder to sort out these tiring disagreements.

And those disagreements, sap our enjoyment of work. We can get used to a whole range of discomfort and difficulty but we never get used to conflict with those around us.

Many people are caught in this dysfunctional production line without even realising it. They know they are dissatisfied. They know that their organisation isn’t effective but they can’t work out how to solve it.

Some organisations are facing this production line approach more openly. They are trying to bring Lean manufacturing strategies into work practices. Sometimes this helps but often implementing the suggested solution is seen as just too hard. It involves negotiating with too many people and so the plan just gathers dust and nothing changes.

Things creak on. If we work really hard, then sometimes things get achieved but it is often at great personal cost. And in the end we wonder if it will really make a difference.

In this environment, it is hard to find work meaningful.

Globalisation and Outsourcing

Another factor leading to the difficulty in finding meaningful work is globalisation. Globalisation means that your company now has access to millions of people who are willing to do your work, at a fraction of the cost.

Increasing access to the internet and cloud computing means that jobs are no longer tied to a particular location. For many this will mean that you are competing for work with people around the world who are likely willing to work for lower pay.

Increasing access to high quality free online education means that many more people will have the opportunity to develop expertise that was previously mainly available in developed countries. Jobs that were previously reserved for people who were lucky enough to live in a country with ready access to affordable education are increasingly being done by people in other countries, who have trained on-line and deliver their work on-line.

Globalisation also means that organisations need to bring their costs into line with those businesses in countries where wages are lower. In an attempt to do this, organisations are repeatedly cutting staff numbers.

This means that individual workers are expected to deliver the same outputs as that were often previously done by four or five people. They get tired and burnt out. They are anxious that their job will disappear too. It feels pretty overwhelming.

Computers and Robots are Taking Jobs

It isn’t just people in other countries who are competing for your job. The development of artificial intelligence and more and more effective robots means that many jobs are disappearing.  Carl Frey and Michael Osborne, from Oxford University, have estimated that about 47% of total employment is at risk from computerisation. What this means is that a larger and larger pool of people are competing for a tightening number of jobs and this is only going to get worse.

Computerisation and the development of robots are changing the face of work. Middle income jobs are disappearing. Jobs are polarising into well paid jobs that require creativity and/or high interpersonal skills and poorly paid jobs that are hard work and often un-engaging (Goos and Manning, 2003). Computers can now do the routine work in a wide array of jobs, both manual and cognitive. The work that is left for people is non routine work both at the top end of the market (professional and managerial jobs in finance and business services e.g. business analysts) and at the bottom end (low paid service roles e.g in clothing and hardware sales or care assistant roles etc). The list of jobs likely to be taken over by computers and robots in the next decade in mind boggling. From short order cooks to legal assistants, from tax agents to telemarketers, thousands of jobs that employ millions of people are simply vanishing (Frey and Osborne, 2013).

People in industrial countries are in a race to maintain their edge over the computer. Many are doing this by becoming better educated and for some, this has led to interesting and well paid work but for many others it has given them both a large debt and work for which they are now over-qualified. The statistics show that an increasing number of people are in jobs for which their qualifications are unnecessary (Goos and Manning, 2003).

Whereas the past used to give signs as to what would happen next in the job market, that has changed dramatically. For example, in 1999 the number of check out operators was rising but now, we check out our own purchases. Past job growth is no longer a reliable way of predicting what skills will be in demand in five or ten years.

The relatively new ability to analyse big data means that tasks that were previously too complex for computers are now vulnerable to computerisation. This has dramatically changed the future of work. An example, some cancer specialists in the US are using IBM’s Watson to diagnose and develop treatment plans for patients with cancer.  Watson draws on 600,000 medical reports,1.5 million patient records, clinical trials and medical journals to come up with a plan (Frey & Osborne 2013). Who would you rather have deciding on the best treatment for you? An imperfect human whose decision making is impacted by how tired or stressed they are? A human who can only remember a small proportion of the relevant information and is prone to a whole range of cognitive biases? Or a computer that can analyse all of the available data and give you the current best available plan? I would choose Watson.

But who would you rather talk you through the plan? Who do you want to help you as you work out the practicalities of how you will face the tough months ahead. Likely a kind-hearted and skilful human. Those skills of empathy and social intelligence can’t be replaced…at least for now.

The rise of computerisation and robots may provide us with a great opportunity to be free of a lot of drudge work. To focus on uniquely human capabilities of creativity and connection. But it might also leave us high and dry – surplus to requirements.

So What Is The Answer?

Over the next months I am going to be writing a lot of blog posts about how you can still create meaningful success despite these difficulties. Watch this space!

If you are just too impatient to wait for my suggestions, then I recommend reading:

The Shift – The Future of Work is Already Here by Lynda Gratton

I have done a mind map summarising the book and you can download it here.

She makes some interesting suggestions for how to navigate the complex and challenging environment we are facing.