As I See It: Oh the Jobs They Are a-Changin’
June 29, 2009 Victor Rozek
Remember those tests we took as kids that required us to pick the item that did not belong in a sequence: A) bicycle, B) wheel, C) chain, D) handlebars, E) botox. Well, here’s one, courtesy of Time magazine. Going forward, the workplace will be: A) more flexible, B) more freelance, C) far less secure, D) run by a generation with new values, E) increasingly controlled by women. In fairness, I should have added F) all of the above, because Time believes all five conclusions to be true. But given these choices, one item on the list doesn’t fit. At least I hope it doesn’t.
While we let that percolate for a moment, it’s worth examining Time‘s other predictions because they include some rare economic good news. For IT professionals, who have been abused and misused this past decade, job availability may be on the rise. The U.S. Department of Labor predicts that over the next seven years “jobs in the information-technology sector are expected to swell 24 percent–a figure more than twice the overall job-growth rate.”
Before the celebrations begin, however, it should be noted that the Department of Labor does not predict which nation’s workers will actually be hired to do those jobs. The implication is that the high-end stuff–genomics, nanotechnology, cloud computing, and the like–will be developed largely in the United States. Still, if the past is any indication, opportunities in emerging technologies will be plentiful only until the sector becomes stable enough for jobs to again be shipped overseas. The wise applicant will do well to practice the Buddhist virtue of non-attachment.
In general, knowledge workers are expected to thrive, which shouldn’t come as a galloping surprise. It doesn’t require prescience to predict that workers with analytical, problem solving, and math and science skills will do better than those without them. Entire markets are forming around such workers. In the last nine years, according to McKinsey & Co, a mega-consulting company, “nearly 85 percent of new jobs created. . . involved complex knowledge work.” Of course, consulting companies usually don’t get called in to advise the local burger joint on who to hire as the night shift supervisor, so they might not be aware of all the swell new jobs created in the post-recession economy.
Another reason for cautious optimism is what Time calls “rethinking the balance between doing well and doing good.” This begins by changing the expectations taught to the next generation of business school graduates. Business schools, according to Angel Cabrera (who happens to lead one), are “ethical wastelands,” places where greed and winning at all costs are institutionalized. Cabrera is not surprised that Wall Street imploded under the weight of its own decay. At his Thunderbird School of Global Management in Arizona, Cabrera asks his students to take the following oath at graduation:
I will strive to act with honesty and integrity. I will respect the rights and dignity of all people. I will strive to create sustainable prosperity worldwide. I will oppose all forms of corruption and exploitation. And I will take responsibility for my actions. As I hold true to these principles, it is my hope that I may enjoy an honorable reputation and peace of conscience.
That’s an extraordinary departure from greed is good, and not every business school shares his enthusiasm for ethics. Like long-held prohibitions against torture, for many the idea of integrity becoming a flow-restrictor on income is, in the infamous word of Roberto Gonzales, “quaint.” Even some of Cabrera’s students are skeptical: one young man called the oath “insulting” and “tacky.” But Cabrera is a visionary and his vision is overdue. Once-burned investors, I suspect, would be far more inclined to invest with a financial manager who is committed to high ethical standards rather than one who thinks a public commitment to integrity is tacky.
Flexibility (in non-ethical respects) is predicted to be another positive hallmark of future employment. Some 80 percent of workers say they want it as a means of creating more balance in their lives. Telecommuting, flextime, and lateral moves that require less travel are just three ways employees are customizing their careers. The old model that required everyone to covet the upper rungs of the corporate ladder is shifting. There is little room at the top and many people frankly don’t care to invest all their life energy trying to squeeze their way in. Success is being redefined, filtered through the quality-of-life prism. For many, seeing their kids grow up is more desirable than having a corner office. Flexibility, according to Time, has moved from being viewed as a reward, to being embraced as an essential business strategy.
As for the bad news, it’s not really news to the 45 million Americans without health insurance. Basically, employers are slashing benefits and shifting costs to employees as quickly as public relations will allow. About half of employers are offering future retirees zero, zip, zilch health-care coverage, and that number is predicted to reach 75 percent. Which makes a single-payer system, such as the ones that serve all other industrialized democracies, even more urgent.
For boomers, healthcare is especially pressing not just because they are aging, but because recent market losses will force them to work an additional nine years before retiring. Pension funds–those that still exist–have been savaged by the plunging stock market. “At the end of 2008, employer-sponsored pension plans were underfunded by more than $400 billion,” Time reports. And those that aren’t underfunded were looted. Former AIG CEO Maurice (call me Hank) Greenberg is charged with improperly taking (legalese for ripping off) $4.3 billion in stock from the company in 2005, after he was ousted for accounting irregularities. Amazing that it took four years for anyone to notice and press charges.
Not all is crime and slime in perk land. Cash balance and 401(k) accounts are still widely available, although the overall value of benefit packages is declining. One reason for the shrinkage is that younger workers are entering the workforce with lower expectations. To the delight of employers everywhere, 18-to-35 year olds do not list pensions and healthcare as high priority benefits. But that’s just short-sighted. With age will come wisdom, followed shortly by illness. Just ask the boomers.
The wildcards in Time‘s analysis are women. Without doubt, women will play a greater role in management, and not just because they comprise a greater portion of the workforce, but because results suggest they are far better managers. Researchers studied 353 Fortune 500 companies and found that “those with more women in senior management had a higher return on equities–by more than a third.” One explanation for women’s success (which benefits from being both reasonable and convincing) is that women manage more cautiously than men do and focus on the long term. By contrast, “men thrive on risk, especially when surrounded by other men.” And as financial markets discovered, management by testosterone has its limitations.
It is the emergence of women in top management that leads me to think item “C” in Time‘s analysis (the workplace will be far less secure) doesn’t belong on the list. Yes, for the short term, the workplace is volatile. But women are biologically wired to value safety, and that could spark a workplace renaissance. Under the old corporate model, in order to compete with men, women believed they had to behave like them (think Carly Fiorina). But as more women ascend the management ranks, biology will reassert itself, and the best among them will not tolerate an insecure workplace.
Given sufficient numbers, women will be able to introduce the more traditional female values such as collaboration, nurturing, long-term thinking, and compassion for their workforce. They will understand that people who feel chronically insecure about the most fundamental aspects of their lives–health care, retirement, job security–are not productive. Worker protections which have been systematically stripped away will be restored.
Who knows, perhaps some day men will have to emulate women in order to compete. Think Palmisano in Prada.
OK, stop thinking that.
The Future of Work, Time