The Agenda

Anya Kamenetz on Quicksilver Careers

In the latest issue of Fast Company, Anya Kamenetz has an excellent article on how career paths are evolving for younger workers:

 

How do human-resource directors discriminate between the aimless or the difficult to work with and job hoppers on a mission? “We’re going to look very differently at a résumé where somebody hops from company to company but in a similar job,” says Judy Gilbert, a director of “people operations” at Google’s YouTube. “That’s not such a great story versus someone who’s getting promoted or building their scope. We want evidence of somebody who is growing.” Intentions matter, in other words, especially when someone seems to be taking a step back or deep into left field. As Gilbert puts it, “I want to hear the plan they had in mind: I liked what I was doing, but I didn’t have the depth in design that I needed, so I consciously took this next job with a small design firm.”

For the job seeker, then, telling an appealing story about your career’s twists and turns is now an essential aspect of self-marketing. But it’s also true that recruiters and managers at large companies are seeking out employees who like to move around. These are the very people who can lead companies toward new markets and ideas. “We’re seeing more and more jobs that simply didn’t exist five years ago but were created as a result of employees driving toward new goals and objectives,” says Chris Hoyt, a recruiting strategist at PepsiCo. Even at a corporate monolith like IBM, “career vitality” is a watchword. There, managers regularly encourage employees to broaden their capabilities, says Jim Spohrer, the director of services research at IBM’s Almaden Services Center. “We have a thousand job openings all over the world at a given time,” he adds. “We don’t want you to go down a corridor where you have limited opportunities down the road.”

As Kamenetz goes on to observe, however, not all workers are well-suited to this new environment, in which a taste for tackling novel challenges in amply rewarded, in terms of stimulation and, in some cases, compensation as well. Many if not most workers, particularly older workers, crave stability:

Laurel Touby, who founded Mediabistro as a media-industry networking and education company in 1996, just at the cusp of the digital revolution, has witnessed the panic firsthand. “A lot of people are too rigid and they’re never going to survive,” says Touby. “Think about magazine editors. They are good at one thing and they love what they do. But some of the older ones are not adapting and they’re just falling out.”

This sense of panic has been pervasive in the media industry, and it has shaped the narrative frames that emanate from the news media, including the prestige media and broadcast media. 

Kamenetz’s article helps define a phenomenon that has defined the professional trajectories of many of my friends and acquaintances, and that I suspect will become far more common. The emergence of the quicksilver career path is yet another reason, incidentally, why asset-building matters for individuals and households. Having an asset cushion can help ease transitions.

It is also why, in my view (I won’t assume that Kamenetz shares it), an approach to economic policy that aims to preserve existing jobs rather than one that aims to foster entrepreneurial growth is likely to prove (a) politically popular and (b) counterproductive. As the obsolescence cycle accelerates, efforts to create a new “license raj” as a guard against failure will most likely entrench incumbent firms, deter the creation of new employee business (i.e., businesses that are more than just an owner-operator), and create a two-tier labor market, like those we see in South Korea and France. One group of employees enjoys extensive and expensive social protections. Another group is employed under short-term contracts that afford few if any protections, and is constantly at the mercy of a slack labor market. Firms in this scenario are reluctant to take on “permanent” employees, given the costs involved, and so they invest heavily in substituting technology for labor, or we simply see more households increase non-market household production to compensate for lower wages.

Reihan Salam is president of the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of National Review.

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