by senior futurist Richard Worzel, C.F.A.
Virtually everyone knows people who are unemployed or underemployed. This is especially true of young adults, although there are also lots of older people, even in their 50s and 60s, who are in similar situations.
This wasn’t true in earlier eras, specifically the periods from about 1950 until the 1980s. If someone finished high school, or even dropped out, and wanted to work, their older brother, a neighbor, or friend would say, “Come on down to the factory with me. I’ll speak to the foreman, and we’ll get you a job.” People coming out of college or university in the 1960s and 1970s would typically have several companies lined up, waiting to hire them. And anyone who truly wanted a job could find one.
This isn’t the case today, and it’s going to get worse. And contrary to the current political fashion to blame unfair foreign competition and international trade agreements, most of the problems today come from the rise of automation, and how machines are taking jobs that used to be done by people. Moreover, this is happening at a steadily accelerating pace. (See our earlier blog, The Beginning Death Cycle of the Consumer, for more details.)
As a result, for many years one of the most consistent questions I had from individuals who have heard me speak at a conference is the one I quoted as the title of this blog, some variation of “How can I help my kid get a job?”
I’ve also heard this directly from young people. I was recently the featured speaker at a celebration of Fanshawe College’s 50th anniversary, at which they asked me to speak about what was coming to post-secondary education over the next 50 years. Afterwards, a young lady, who was currently enrolled at Fanshawe, came up to me and said she had a number of friends who had graduated, and were unable to find useful employment. She wanted to know what I could tell her that might help her find a job.
I got an analogous question the following week at a conference where I was speaking about the future of electric power utilities (See Deadly Shock: The Coming Devastation of Power Utilities), only this time from the father of a young man who, although highly qualified and holding a useful degree, couldn’t find steady, full-time employment.
So let me first trace the reasons why this is happening, and then look at what individuals of any age, but especially people in their 20s and 30s, can do about it.
What’s the Problem? Where Are the Jobs?
It was true that jobs were lost during the rapid rise of the Chinese, Indian, and other rapidly developing economies, but that was largely in the latter decades of the 20th Century. Today, while some shifts in employment happen because of emerging new players, more recently in Latin America and Africa, there isn’t the wholesale loss of jobs to foreign competitors that there was earlier.
Now most of the job loss is implicitly because of the march of Moore’s Law, i.e., the rapid acceleration of cost-effective computing. Add to this the emergence of more sophisticated computing techniques, things like neural networks and Deep Learning, evolutionary algorithms and Genetic Programming (a software technique), and more, and it’s easy to see that computers are getting much smarter as well as much faster. All of this has been rather sloppily labeled “Artificial Intelligence”, or AI.
The result is that automation, both as smart computers, and as robots in the physical world, is rapidly eating its way up the workplace food chain, displacing more and more people from routine work. And not all of this work is blue collar, either. Indeed, dealing with the real world, which is typically what happens in blue-collar work, is actually pretty messy and unpredictable, which makes it harder to automate. Today it is white-collar work, such as accounting and legal research, that’s more likely to be automated.
Meanwhile, in the aftermath of the financial panic of 2008 and the Great Recession of 2009-10, companies have been exceptionally cautious, and thus have been slow to hire workers back, and slow to invest in new plant and equipment. In response, consumer demand has been slow to recover – the workers who have not been hired back are less likely to splurge on new purchases. This has led to a vicious cycle: companies didn’t hire because consumer demand was weak, and consumers didn’t buy because employment was hard to find.
It’s only now, in the 10th year after the panic of 2008 that something like full employment has been achieved in America, and even today much of this is due to the number of people who have given up looking for work, which technically takes them out of the labor force. (Someone who has given up looking for work is not counted as being unemployed.)
So today companies are, in aggregate, sitting on large amounts of cash at a time when robots and smart computers are offering the opportunity to make a one-time purchase to get a job done rather than paying an employee every week or month. And as computers and robots become steadily more flexible and more capable, the range of jobs available to humans will continue to shrink.
And having even a modest percentage of people who are desperate for work gives employers a big advantage, allowing them to offer less in pay, security, and benefits to almost everyone by playing workers off against each other. This increases profits, and also creates even more people who are eager to accept less than they want in order to be employed, leading to a ever-more precarious employment.
All of which brings us to back the opening question: What can a person do to find a job?
How Can I Find a Job?
Over the years, due to being asked this and similar questions repeatedly, and after having given it a lot of thought, I tend to offer a range of suggestions:
1) Stop looking for a paycheck – The world is changing, and many people who might have been employed in earlier decades may find that they have to create their own paycheck by running their own business. Indeed, regardless of whether you sign your own paycheck, or someone else does, you are going to be responsible for managing your career. And this means making sure you have skills that the world wants, and can find a way of making sure you get paid for it. This is not easy, but may be the best solution for you.
But beyond this, thinking that you have to find a job, that you have to have someone else pay you, is limiting. It pushes your thinking towards the perspective that you need to have a job, or else you have nothing. This kind of thinking may lead you to a dead-end, retail greeter-type of job, if you can even find one.
Instead, the question you should be asking yourself is: How can I create an income stream?
2) Why should you pay someone to sign your paycheck? – If someone employs you, it’s because you can produce enough to justify your employment. That means you need to be able to compensate your employer not only for your paycheck, but also for all of the overhead, office space, accounting, legal form filing, and the rest of the stuff that goes into having employees. As well, an employer is essentially guaranteeing to pay you on a regular basis, so they need to be compensated for that assurance as well. And if you’re working with a for-profit company, you have to produce a profit for your employer, or else there’s no reason for them to have you on staff.
All of this is perfectly normal and ethical, but it does beg the question: If you are worth more than your paycheck, is there a way you could capture that “more” for yourself instead of paying it to an employer?
The answer may be no. If you are a natural born salesperson of oil tankers, for instance, it may be hard for you to set up shop for yourself. If you are a gifted accountant, able to manage the books and the forward financial planning for a multinational corporation, you need a multinational corporation to do that for. You may need someone else to complement your talents and abilities, or to provide a large organizational context that allows you to do what you are best at doing. But before you come to that as a final conclusion, ask yourself if there isn’t a way you could do that by working at arms-length for an organization that needs your talents rather than becoming an employee.
Another perfectly legitimate reason for being an employee is that you are unwilling to take the risk of running your own business, of going it alone. As someone who has run their own consultancy for almost 40 years, and gone through some pretty lean times, I can tell you that it can be very scary when there’s no money coming in the door, no clients at the other end of the phone. But, on the other hand, it’s pretty scary being unemployed for a long period of time, too.
It may be that being employed is what you really want and need, but at least consider other possibilities.
3) Don’t just look at the world, look at what’s inside of you – A question that I get related to the primary question is: What kind of jobs have the best prospects? That’s a useful question, but you need to complement it by asking: Am I likely to be good at that, and would I want to invest at least part of my life doing that?
Looking outside yourself is useful, in part because it gives you a sense of what the world is willing to pay to have done. But don’t stop there. You should also look inside and ask yourself: What talents and abilities do I have that are worthwhile, and that the world might be willing to pay for. And also: What do I want to build my life around doing? You want to create a life, as well as afford to live.
So, by all means, research what’s hot, what occupations are growing, and where is there a crying need for people, but don’t stop there. You’re looking for something that fits both you and the world’s needs. Which brings me to my next principle.
4) What are you passionate about? – In a global economy, you’re going to be competing with the best people in the world in any field, so in many ways your best bet is to do what you are best at. Most of the time, that’s also what you are most passionate about, so ask yourself: What do I really, really want to do for a living? This can be a surprisingly difficult question to answer. We are so used to settling for what seems possible after a lifetime of being told that we can’t have what we really want that we lose the ability to even recognize what we really, really want.
Yet, being passionate about something, and being really good at it, isn’t enough. You also have to invent an answer to the question: How can I create a reason why the world should pay me to do what I love doing?
I have a friend from my university days who is an artist. Whenever we’re together, he has a tendency to rail against society, and how it doesn’t do enough to support the arts, by which he means that the world doesn’t do enough to support him. Whether he’s right that society should do more to support the arts (and him) or not doesn’t matter. It only matters whether society will do more – and it’s pretty clear that the answer is no.
You have to invent a reason, a method, a structure, an excuse, or a mechanism to entice the world to pay you for doing what you are good at doing. No one is going to do that for you.
This can be difficult, but it’s a step that you must take.
5) Become multi-talented – Even if you focus on your passion and greatest strength, whatever it is, there will be plenty of competition from others with similar strengths. An important way to improve your competitive position is to have more than one strength, to offer a range of complementary skills.
Hence, a passionate and talented graphic artist will find herself up against bunches of other talented and passionate graphic artists, but one who can write good marketing copy as well will have an advantage. And the more complementary skills you have, and the more versatile you are, the better the potential is to improve your competitive position.
6) What else do you need? – Whether you decide to sign your own paycheck, or have someone else do it for you, you will, as I said above, still need to accept responsibility for your own career – or else you may be caught off-guard when your job is eliminated, or you are “outsourced”, or whatever the current euphemism is for being fired, let go, or laid off.
And if you accept responsibility for managing your own career, you should ask yourself: What else do I need?
Beyond this, if you have identified your passion, and know your greatest strengths, you are half way to also identifying what you’re not especially good at. And if you accept, as I said above, that you need to invent a reason why the world should pay you to do what you are passionate about, then you probably have a pretty good idea, in rough terms, what would be necessary for that to happen.
I’m not particularly good at marketing myself, for instance, which is often true with people who sell their own services. I find it hard to tell people why I’m the greatest thing since sliced pineapple, and why they should shell out big bucks just to have me around. The ways that I’ve learned to deal with this are two-fold.
First, I’ve worked hard at developing groups of people who are willing to market my services. They work on commission, but they are good at marketing, and they spend their days thinking about who might find my (and, I admit, other peoples’) services useful. And they have no qualms telling people just how wonderful I am, and why people should pay me a lot of money – and them a justifiable commission out of that.
And second, I’ve worked at learning how I can make it easier for such people to market my services. I’ve also worked hard at getting better at what I do, and finding out how I can add more value to those organizations that engage me to work with them. And as part of that, I’ve also studied both marketing and sales techniques, and have learned ways of helping myself help potential clients see what value I can bring to the table.
Likewise, you need to figure out what you aren’t good at, but need, then find ways of filling those needs. It may be that you need people to market your services. It may be that you need to learn things, like accounting and tax management, that you wouldn’t necessarily choose to learn, but which are going to be important if you are going to succeed. If you’re an introvert, you may need to learn how to be outgoing when warranted. If you’re an extrovert, you may need to learn how to be quiet and listen when your clients speak.
Very, very few people form a complete package, so figure out what else you need, then find a way to get it.
7) Be in front of the right door at the right time with the right stuff – The Pixar movie Monsters, Inc. describes a community of monsters who generate power by scaring children. They leap from their community to a specific child’s bedroom by means of movable doors (dimensional portals, I guess – we’re never really told). But to get to scare a specific child at a particular time, a monster has to be in front of the right door, at the right time, and with the right stuff.
Finding work, whether you are job hunting or beating the bushes for work for your own business, involves the same thing. One of the most common problems is you can be in front of the right door with the right stuff, but it’s not the right time. Finding the right time is difficult, and about the only way I’ve ever found for solving this one is to check in with that door (i.e., client or employer) not once, but several times.
Of course, you don’t want to become a pest, someone people avoid, so make sure you have a reasonable excuse for calling back, and permission to do so. If I check with a client who says they like what I do, but aren’t in the market right now, I’ll say something like, “Fair enough. Would it be OK if I checked back with you in 2-3 months?” Mostly they’ll say yes, which gives me permission to do so. If they say no, then I’ll say something like, “When would be a good time for me to check back with you?”
Another way of doing this is to send them something you believe they might find of interest from time-to-time, or that might be valuable to them, and then follow up with more information. And while you’re chatting with them, you can ask if anything has changed.
Make sure you are sensitive to how they respond to speaking with you more than once. You want to be regarded as a resource, not a pest.
8) Find people who can help you – This is a natural outgrowth of point 6, and it particularly applies to your network, as well as the network of people that people in your network know.
Working your network can help you find the right door to be in front of, and when that happens, make sure you’re there at the right time, with the right stuff, even if you have to disrupt the rest of your life to be there. And if they say they haven’t got anything for you, keep working the network by asking them if they happen to know anyone who is looking for someone like you.
If they say no, there’s no harm done. If they say yes, then call that person right away and say, “Hi, I was just talking to Joe Smith, and he thought you might be interested in …” and then go into your elevator speech. (The elevator speech is your finest honed and practiced presentation of what you offer that can be delivered in a single breath, and can be finished before you can be interrupted, or they get out at their floor of the elevator.)
But the right people can be mentors, too.
Early in my career, I developed a relationship with a head-hunter (personnel recruiter). He made his living by finding a range of capable people with different abilities to fit specific careers for his clients. I worked with him in a couple of ways. First, I made sure I stayed in touch with him, and kept him apprised of what I was doing, and any new skills or accomplishments I had. As a result, I found he would often include me in a group of potential candidates for a wider range of jobs than I might otherwise have seen. Sometimes I was just padding to provide a range of options for the client. That never bothered me because it gave me a broader range of exposure than I would have had on my own. And you never knew when you might be a surprise fit for a position.
And second, whenever we got together and talked, I tried to learn from him as his perspective on what organizations would pay to have people do was different from my own, and his experience much deeper in many areas than mine. He was older than I was, and was happy to do this, partly out of a sense of mentorship, but also as a potential investment in someone who might one day might earn him a commission on a position he had been hired to fill.
And that became a valuable insight for me: I tried to make sure that any relationship benefitted both parties, that I gave things of value to people with whom I worked and people I met, so that they would come to value their relationship with me.
But sometimes what the other person receives may not be something they can put in the bank. I’ve had a number of mentors through my career, and have mentored some others as I got older. What my mentors received (I hope), is a sense of satisfaction that someone they felt was worthwhile has benefited from something they knew or help they were able to give. Likewise, I’ve been on the receiving end of this kind of feeling by being a mentor. Benefits don’t have to be financial to be valuable.
9) Be persistent – About three years before I started working as a professional speaker, I was approached by a very successful, national speakers’ agency. They had heard of me, and wanted to meet with me to see if I had potential as a speaker. I met one of their agents over coffee, and outlined to her what I thought I could bring to an event as a speaker. She thanked me warmly when we finished, and left.
I heard back later that they didn’t think I had much potential as a speaker – or, as they rather more diplomatically put it, I wasn’t a “good fit” for their agency.
What they didn’t realize was that they had made me aware of something that I wanted to do, and thought I would be good at doing. Something I could be passionate about. So when something else I did opened the door to professional speaking again, I charged through it. It was hard going for the first couple of years, but I had learned by that stage in my life that persistence is a cardinal virtue in careers as well as business, so I kept at it.
This has been expressed in many, many business clichés, such as the popular saying “Keep on keepin’ on”, or “Persistence is will power and desire combined. Persistence is steel determination.”, attributed to Warren Buffet, or, perhaps most famously, Ray Kroc’s comment:
Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan press on has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.
You may have to detour for a while, or do something else to pay the bills for a while, but if you persist, your odds of succeeding at what you want go way up, whether it’s securing a specific kind of job, or creating your own business.
And, by the way, over the years I have done tens of thousands of dollars worth of business with the speakers’ agency that told me I had no potential as a speaker. We all laugh when I remind them of that.
10) Play Against the Machines’ Weaknesses, Not Their Strengths – If automation is eating its way up the food chain, and you don’t want to be part of its lunch, then you need to figure out what you’re good at that the machines are not.
As I said earlier, machines aren’t good at messy things. For example, there’s a burger-making robot, which is now being marketed by Momentum Machines. It’s very fast, producing 360 hamburgers an hour. It’s consistent. And it takes less floor space than a human hamburger flipper. But it needs to have a human load the ingredients, and fix any problems that crop up. It also wouldn’t be very good at dealing with an irate customer. So, yes, robots are good at repetition – but not very good at the messy bits around the edges, especially if they require judgment, or involve novel situations not contemplated in the machines’ programming.
Fundamentally, machines, whether robots or smart computers, are good at learning and doing routine things, and then repeating them. So the jobs that are going to be at greatest risk are going to be those where you are doing the same things over and over again. And it doesn’t matter whether this repetition happens every day, every week, or every year. If your job involves repeating a process over and over, you are in danger of seeing your work automated.
All routine work is under siege, and may eventually be automated. So what does that leave? Well, obviously, non-routine work, and there are two primary kinds of that.
The first kind is messy, like the real world is messy, as I described with the Burger ’Bot. The real world is messier and more complicated than robots are capable of dealing with outside of their neatly defined areas of competence. As a result, humans may be able to keep automation at bay in messy, real world situations, especially those that require coming up with new answers to old questions, or dealing with situations that haven’t arisen before.
Which brings me to my second kind of non-routine work: creative, innovative work, work that is different every day, and in which you are constantly learning and doing new things.
So, in your consideration of what you want to do, look for ways of introducing constant change to your work by continually learning how to do new things, and how to do old things better.
Which means that the old business cliché, “If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it” is now broken. Fix it by constantly reinventing yourself and what you do.
11) Co-opt the competition – The working world is going to be a more difficult, and less forgiving place. At the same time, because things are changing so quickly, it also offers more opportunities for those able to see and grasp them. And if automation is part of the competition, then one way of dealing with that is to co-opt it.
Look at what computers and robots can do, and think about what you could do with computers and robots, how you could employ them, that would make you more valuable.
This may be easier if you are working for yourself – or it may be that you can become the office tech guru by introducing new technologies that can give your organization a more productive edge.
If you can’t beat ’em, co-opt them.
12) Ignore your parents (or your past) – Perhaps the thorniest lesson may be that the lessons of the past may actually be harmful to your future. And for parents, this may be particularly difficult: the things that worked for you probably won’t work for your kids. So my final principle is: Don’t listen to your parents. It was different in their day, and what worked for them probably won’t work for you.
Or, if you’ve been in the workplace for quite some time, be willing to forget the past. What brought you success then may not bring you success now. Continuing to do what you always did may lead to dead ends. Instead, learn about the marketplace as it is now rather than remembering how it was when you first broke into the workplace. A sense of amnesia may be very valuable.
And good luck.