There’s been a rash of stories in the world media over the past four weeks basically spilling ink to tell human interest stories. In all of these, the message is the same: here’s these hard working people who got turfed out of their job, and can’t find a new one, woe is them.
Oh, and that because they’re now long-term unemployed, they’re unemployable. Whether they like it or not, designing an enterprise that can support them has just become their responsibility (woe is them).
As someone who’s next birthday starts with a six, and who’s spent much of the past fifteen years wrestling with this condition, I certainly understand the disruption to families this causes. Three times, over the past decade and a half, I’ve managed to wrest myself out of self-employment-by-necessity and back into a regular paycheque. Within two years, it would end (one management buyout thanks to downsizing, one company acquired and good-bye, and one “so long and thanks for all the fish” non-renewal of contract so that a Board Member could solve his lack-of-paycheque problem).
But the presumption that there’s a spot on the career ladder (and you just have to work harder at landing it) is what’s wrong here.
There are fewer of those every day. What’s worse, more and more of what’s left is now in “grace and favour” status, as opposed to “meritocratic” status.
Let me explain. Have you ever heard the line (from back when performance evaluations were given letter grades, with A being top performers) “As hire As, but Bs hire Cs”?
Top performers have been systematically culled from organizations now for a good twenty years. Going back to the early 1990s, when pay rises compressed down to the usual cost-of-living, or two to three per cent range we’ve been used to, the easiest way to keep budgets in line for compensation was to find a reason to cull the top performers. After all, they were the ones who could choose to leave — zapping a budget with zero flexibility with hiring and maybe training costs — and they were the ones who wouldn’t be happy with a pawned off two per cent.
Today, the typical organization with a career progression has far fewer A performers than it used to — and the Cs are now hiring Ds and Es. (Or, to put it another way, basic performance has degraded significantly.)
An organization run by ho-hum performers treats raises and promotions as “favours”, not as recognition of performance. In turn, people seek the “grace” of those who control their continued presence there.
The net result is that the merit-based is displaced by courtier behaviour.
Now, for those who are long-term unemployed, coming back into a workplace as an employee after several years of scratching out a living doing what you could has ill-prepared you for re-entry. There’s no choice but to be merit-based when you’re asking someone to sign a contract, after all. Even if you weren’t very good before starting, being your own boss has sharpened you up.
When you’re hired, therefore, the clock is already ticking. Merit has become a danger to a grace-and-favour world.
For the forty-five and olders who are let go — in a bankruptcy, in a merger, or just one of the periodic “balance the books” purges — there are three immediate choices to make.
First, do you want another job or not? If you do, you’d better get it quick, before you’re “aged goods”.
Second, if you want structure, can you get there from here by building a portfolio of volunteer work coupled with some employment in your field? (Think of this as the career-change option.)
Third, do you want to build a vibrant business of your own (which could be a not-for-profit) to replace the job you had?
There are now so many people on the shelf of “unwanted” that expecting a turnaround in the economy to solve the problem and put everyone back on the career ladder is ridiculous. Moreover, the longer you’ve survived without a “job”, the less likely it is that some C performer hiring for an opening will be anything but threatened by you. No job offer there!
This is harsh stuff to get your mind around — and even tougher on families. All these years later, I still get asked why I don’t just “get a job”, or why I can’t move repeated clients to just “hire me” and be done with it.
It doesn’t work that way, and that’s the end of the story.