Once upon a time, people would line up to sell their souls to big corporations like General Motors and IBM. Of course they did! The corporations were paying a good price: nice salary, prestige, lifetime employment, secretaries to do the typing, decent hours, company pension, not a bad gig at all. I’m sure that the “organization men” of the 50s and 60s had to endure their share of jargon, management fads, group-think, and other corporate nonsense, but it seemed like a much more humane as well as profitable experience than we see today. Sure, the company would lay off factory workers, but they were blue-collar, the white-collar guys were insulated from that sort of insecurity, and they had the cache of being “management,” and managers were part of “us,” not “them.”
In the years since, the social contract between corporations and the employees and managers that staff them has been completely rewritten. The first casualty was security. Regardless of how much you like your job, company and boss, and how safe it may seem, you are in fact one merger, one outsourcing, one re-engineering process away from unemployment. And if you haven’t been tending your network, you may find yourself out of work for a long time, months or years, even if you were good at your job. As a result, you may have to purchase your own health insurance, dip into your 401(k) to make your bills, and confront personal demons from procrastination to full-blown depression. Even the company pension is gone. Companies may match your 401(k) contributions, but you are on your own to create you’re a retirement plan.
On the flipside, many people who have jobs can’t escape from them. You may put in a LONG workweek (because you need to put in “face time” to show you are “serious” and “dedicated” so you can “get ahead”), and even then you aren’t done. They’ll find you, with your BlackBerry, e-mail, cell phone. You may be expected to check in while you are on vacation, at your child’s soccer game or uncle’s funeral, in the labor and delivery room. To make matters worse, they are allowed to monitor your company e-mail account, and recruiters can find private information about you by searching FaceBook or running a Google search to see what blogs you comment on.
Lastly, while much of the good stuff like job security, status and company pension have vanished, most of the annoying traits have remained: inflexibility, conformism, pettiness, and the soul-crushing cubicle with fluorescent lights. A handful of progressive companies are experimenting with flex time or results-only work environment and other ways of actually treating employees like adults, but most still require that you be in a certain place, at a certain time, dressed in a certain way, so that someone else can monitor your activity and ensure that you are behaving. Yuck. I don’t want to feel like a sheep, thank you, constantly herded from meeting to meeting or stuck in my pen.
Why this litany of corporate venality? I think we are at a major decision point, the likes of which we haven’t seen since the 1930s. The rules have changed, slowly, imperceptibly. They put the lobster in the pot and turned the heat on. It took a long time for us to notice we were getting cooked, but now we know: the concept of career that our grandparents understood is gone, and the void is being filled by a combination of fear, opportunity, moonlighting, freelancing, personal initiative, indecision and insecurity. Maybe you want to sell your soul to a large corporation to get a steady job with nice benefits. The trouble is, they aren’t buying on those terms.
So, since you can’t get a good price for your soul, why not keep it? Now is the golden opportunity: what do you really want? What is important to you? Why not start your own business? Or take a job with “meaning,” like helping the elderly or working in the art world? Why not freelance, or cobble together multiple streams of income? Particularly if you are young and do not have a huge mortgage, braces for the kids, a “reputation in the community” to maintain. No one is going to create safety, fulfillment, or joy for you, but you can create it yourself through your own efforts, and think how sweet that will be, when you have designed your life around what is important to you, and “the boss” can’t take it away! What’s the cost? Acknowledging the risk and accepting the responsibility. The risk is there anyway, even at a supposedly “safe” job, all you need to do is actually admit to yourself that you are taking on that risk. It requires accepting responsibility for yourself, instead of delegating that to a boss in a company who will manage your efforts for you. You will need to find your own clients and customers and find out what is important to them. You will need to manage your own plans and goals and achievements, a tall order for some, but ultimately so much more satisfying, because you get to keep your soul and live your life according to your own wants, needs and values. So stop looking for someone else to create security for you and start creating a life worth living!
Contributor Dave Kaiser works with entrepreneurs and job-seekers to define and realize a career that is emotionally, spiritually and materially rewarding his clients. His mission as a coach is to evoke excellence in my clients.