What do we do with the discarded people?


Foreman says these jobs are going, boys, and they ain’t coming back
—Bruce Springsteen, My Hometown

A tour of modern Detroit, East St. Louis, IL, Camden, NJ, and a host of other formerly industrial centres shows what’s left of the mass industrial jobs of blue collar life. Springsteen’s song about the decline and fall of the aspirational blue collar middle class from the 1970s is being played out again today.

Except, this time, it’s white collar jobs and managerial jobs that are “going, boys”, and they, too, aren’t coming back.

Partly that’s a function of endless consolidation in industries. As an industry matures, growth — that quest for endless increase — turns from creating new uses and new customers into buying up the ones that exist through acquisitions.

Today, most of our industries are mature. Worse, as Tom Overton well described in his book The Death of Demand, most of us have it all already. Designing things so they can’t have routine replacement parts put in at any reasonable price (such as Apple’s iPhone, where a replacement phone is often cheaper than replacing a worn out battery) only goes so far. So the pressure to grow by merging companies is greater than it used to be.

Those mergers, in turn, are squeezing head office jobs, management jobs, and the jobs Peter Drucker called “knowledge worker” jobs.

Then, too, the remnant “knowledge worker” jobs are changing, too. Even those bastions of antiquated practice, law firms (do you know any other line of business still so paper-dependent in 2013), are discovering that 80 per cent of what they do can be done in India, or other places like that, just as well but at a fraction of the cost of doing it here. What remains here requires far more skill.

That’s why an analyst in a department who used to crunch numbers as a staff person today has been replaced by a business intelligence program that does that job — and the residual analysts in the firm are Ph.Ds in mathematics and statistics who can sift for patterns in a pool of big data.

More discards. The job may still exist, but the terms of reference have dramatically changed.

There was a cartoon that appeared in The New Yorker in the early 1990s, when the restructuring craze was cresting (just around the time we were beginning to realize this wasn’t a shift to a process-based organizational model from a functional one quite as much as it was an excuse for mass layoffs to juice earnings per share). It showed a speech bubble coming from the top floor boardroom, saying “we won’t hire people, we’ll just sell them stuff”.

Well, how do the discarded white collar and managerial workers of our time buy things when they’re on the rubbish tip of history?

This is not a call to force their re-employment. It is a call for each of us to recognize something important.

Your résumé is useless if no one’s buying what you’re selling.

Or, to put it another way, being seen to have the required skills for today matters.

I remember a friend of mine who went through a three year period of unemployment while he wrestled with this demon. His (now) ex-wife one day shoved an advert ripped from the local newspaper under his nose: the local transit company was looking for bus drivers. This to a fellow who (now that he’s re-employed, although he’s had to go overseas to get the job) is now running a country division of a multinational mining company based on his finance and negotiating skills — and on his track record at one of the top oil companies in the world. Why was he out of work in the first place? His job was reduced in a cost-cutting measure, in a company that had already substantially outsourced its operations.

He might still have his wife and children living with him had he gotten behind the wheel, swallowing his pride (and the knowledge that that would be a one way trip away from corner offices and into a very different socio-economic stratum). By holding out, he lost them, but did manage to (eventually) have a new entry show up on his résumé that matched the types that preceded it.

Lest you think this can’t happen to you, this is a fellow with four university degrees — his M.Sc. in Computer Science, MBA, and M.Sc. in Finance are all from top European universities and earned while working, so he certainly did the “keep growing your credentials” game — and yet today he’s in South America, because there just weren’t enough opportunities for him to continue to live in Canada.

It’s a statistical likelihood that events will overtake most careers before their time. What are you doing to prepare for that day? What kinds of options do you want to be open to when the time comes? (There’s nothing wrong with being the bus driver in your community after having been the Corporate Strategist for a multinational, if you’re prepared to make that change.)

It’s all about managing your risks, and that’s what the advisors at PDD are here to help you with.

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