On Monday, Donna Maria Coles Johnson and blog reader Mark Wooten both alerted me to a cover story in USA Today called Many Americans retire years before they want to which talked about the fact that many Americans are being forced to retire much earlier than planned due to layoffs and downsizing. When workers are laid off at an older age, they often find it is much harder to get back into the workforce, which can be dominated by what are perceived as cheaper, smarter and faster employees.
On the same day, I read an article in The Arizona Republic that said more and more college students are taking entrepreneurship classes, since they plan to skip working for The Man altogether.
These stories support a theme I want to drive home: This is not our parent’s job market!
I had an experience with this that forever altered my notion of job security in a corporation. In the early 90’s, I was working in downtown San Francisco, right around the corner from my Dad, who had the position of corporate photographer for a large company. He called me around lunchtime and asked if I could come over to see him. (How great was it to be 25 and financially irresponsible and have Dad around the corner to take me to lunch for those times when I had no money and two days till payday? But I digress…) I walked into his office like I had done many times before and was confused by the empty desks and offices. It felt like a bomb had gone off, vaporizing only human beings, family pictures and plants, leaving desks, chairs and company property intact.
My Dad told me that they had just laid off 10 of the 11 people in his corporate communications department. He was the only one left standing. They laid off an employee that had not only worked for the company for 21 years, her father and grandfather had worked for the company until retirement (not to mention her son and ex-husband). He said that she was totally shocked when HR tapped her on the shoulder and told her she had 20 minutes to pack her belongings and walk out the door. She never saw it coming.
That was more than 13 years ago.
Many years later, as part of one of my consulting assignments, I was asked to be one of the evil HR people that sit in a room with you when you are laid off. It was one of the most distasteful experiences of my working career, and I vowed never to do it again. But despite my discomfort, I was still surprised that many employees acted totally shocked that they were being let go. The company was going through huge consternation. Sales were down. The internet economy had already collapsed. The goddamn consultants were brought in. Who didn’t see the writing on the wall?
Those that plan on lifetime security from a job are in for a rude awakening. The sooner you get clear on alternatives and options for generating income outside of your job, the more secure you will be.
The subject interviewed for the USA Today article ended this way: "There’s no sense of retirement like my parents had," Yoder says, "You work ’til you drop. I hear a lot of fear that their bosses are going to let them go."
I offer an antidote to this thoroughly depressing outlook:
- Plan to be laid off earlier than expected. Don’t count on working until 65 for the same employer. Run many different financial scenarios for retirement, including being laid off at 55. Create alternative plans.
- Start something on the side. A consulting gig, EBay business, real estate investments, a book, anything to bring in more income and create a safe passage out in the case of an unexpected layoff.
- Get thee familiar with technology. We all use email and the internet every day, but some of us are still resistant to technology. It is an integral part of how business will work in the next few decades, and the younger generation eats it for breakfast. You may never be as smart with a computer as your 8-year old son or daughter, but you don’t want to become known as the one around the office who is always saying "I just don’t understand all this technology!"
- Keep your skills razor-sharp. Not all of you may be cut out for entrepreneurship and that’s OK. But make sure that you are still marketable if you are in the later years in your career. My Dad was extremely lucky that he was able to work until 65. Then he was laid off a month after being eligible for retirement, so in addition to his regular benefits, he also got a healthy severance package. Then he started freelancing for his old employer, so he brought in even more money. He is still going strong at 71, not because he has to, but because he loves what he does. If he were a complacent, mediocre employee, he would have been let go in the first round of layoffs 13 years ago.
- If you are serious about starting a business, don’t screw around anymore. Shift your priorities, get the necessary resources in place and begin to make progress. You are essentially putting your financial life at risk if you don’t deal with this now.
- Get your financial house in order without beating yourself up. If you have your head buried in the sand because you are afraid to see your financial situation, pull it out. No one has a perfect financial history. As Michel Foucault said first, knowledge is power. When you know where you stand, you can make a plan.
- Do not be afraid to share what you know and grow the next generation of business leaders. I have run across some of the older generation who hold onto their knowledge like it was the last bit of bread in a famine. Let’s face it. Someone who is secure with himself shares what he knows, he who is insecure and afraid hoards it. Sure you will be taken advantage of by an ungrateful whipper snapper or two, but they will be the exception, not the rule. If you are seen as someone who develops talent, you will have a better chance at keeping or landing a new job.
I thought of a metaphor for this whole notion of "This is not our parent’s job market" as I was driving back from getting a latte this morning. In our parent’s generation, getting a job with a well-known, large corporation was akin to marrying well. Your "spouse" was considered dependable, honest, loyal and committed and would be with you through decades of marital bliss. Nowadays, a job with a large corporation is like marrying a spouse with a long track record of a wandering eye, bankruptcies and many failed marriages. You never know when he will eye the younger/fitter/more charming secretary and leave you broke and bitter. The problem is, you know this going into the relationship and still believe that with your hard work and love, he will change his cheating ways.
Crimeny, people, the writing is on the wall … don’t try to change your employer, change yourself!