I was brought up in the 1970s to believe that by keeping my head down, fitting in and not making mistakes …
… I’d get a job for life, my own home, with a picket fence and 2.4 kids.
Woo-hoo! That, was the bargain. That, was the dream.
It was the same dream that had been handed down the generations since the 1950s. Reinforced by schools and colleges, employers, the banks and the media.
Now, in the 2020s … what’s changed? Well, everything … and nothing.
And that... is a BIG problem.
Let me explain.
Our mindset remains stuck in a monochrome 1950s world. Our aspiration, expectation (entitlement even) is still … the job and home for life. And our beliefs about the way to get there are still ... based on what we thought worked in the 1950s.
The problem however is that the world has shifted.
While the dream never was realistic for most, it did serve as an aspiration. But what's changed is that the dream is no longer relevant. How many of us still even want to live in the same place, doing the same job for life?
Even for those where the dream is still relevant, our assumptions about the way to achieve it no longer hold true.
And yet the dream persists - as a myth. Parents continue to peddle the myth, as do schools, universities, employers, the mainstream media and the financial system. The myth of the job for life and how to get it.
This is a problem because we and our kids alike are not prepared for the real world.
The real world has shifted, like tectonic plates beneath our feet. And it continues to shift in ever more profound and unexpected ways.
Enter, the schism.
The schism is the terrifying and widening gap between our fixed 1950s mindset and the unforeseen, unsettling realities of today’s ever-changing world.
We know that the 'job-for-life' no longer exists and yet we're brought up, educated and conditioned to behave as if it still does. As a result, many experience financial and psychological pain and disappointment.
What to do?
First, we must accept that the 1950s dream is no longer relevant - a nostalgic comfort blanket, at best. That’s the easy part.
Second, we need to recognise the shifts for what they are and reframe them as opportunities.
So, what are these shifts and how can we turn them to our advantage?
Jobs and dogs
There's a British saying that a dog is for life, not just for Christmas. At the very start of my career, I was about to learn that jobs are nothing like dogs...
Just a few months into my first job ... I distinctly remember the day my boss was made redundant.
This was the UK in 1985. We were just beginning to recover from a painful recession. One in 8 of the workforce were still unemployed. I can barely imagine the anguish as he broke the news to his wife and 2.4 kids. The guy was middle-aged and unlikely to find another job anytime soon.
As for me, it was a wake-up call because I had been brought-up to believe the myth. The myth that if you work hard and do as you’re told then you’ll be rewarded with a job for life. And of course a job for life signified security, status and all the stuff you could reasonably want.
Anyway, I got back to work and soon forgot all about my old boss. I rationalised that it was at least in my world a one-off event. So I did what I was always told to do. Kept my head-down and my nose clean …
As it happened, I had three jobs in the the first 3 years of my career. All by choice. I was lucky to be a programmer with in-demand skills and so getting a new job was not hard for me.
But, seeing my boss walking out the door that day with a cardboard box under his arm was a crash course in how the idea of a job for life is a myth.
Recognise that you cannot expect to keep a job for long. In the US, the late Boomer (born 1957-64) had an average of 12.3 jobs over their work lifetime. These figures are similar in the UK and are set to be higher still for Millenials.
The opportunity is look out for what you want to do and what is in demand, and skill-up. Be proactive and do this before you need to. Get your employer to pay for training where possible. But let's be clear, the super skill is learning how to learn. Master that and your life will be easier.
Five careers (not jobs!) in a lifetime is not unthinkable. Constantly re-inventing your work self and career is about to become the new normal. I can recommend Reinvent Yourself by James Altucher and Entrepreneurial You by Dorrie Clark.
Cogs and linchpins
I’ve only ever experienced ‘work’ as a series of projects. A project for me is building something from scratch, getting people to use it and hopefully benefit from it in some way.
If I had ever been forced into a ‘job’ doing the same thing over and over again I’d have found a way to automate it and go to the beach - and expect a bonus! It's in my DNA.
Anyway, I have noticed that over my 35 year working life, many people are stuck doing pretty much the same kind of thing every day. These jobs tend to be more operational in nature. Some of these jobs are in tech but most outside.
Many of these operational type jobs have already been automated away over the years and many of the rest are going the same way. In my early days as a programmer for example we’d have ‘operators’ to type my code from hand-written coding sheets onto ‘digital’ cards. And more operators to feed them into the mainfram computer! 10s of thousands of back-office type jobs have been swept away and so it goes on.
I realise that many people want a job where they don't have to think. Go through the motions, and go home. I get it.
But please recognise that the more you are seen to be merely a cog in a system, the more easily you can (and will) be replaced by a better cog: cheaper, faster, more reliable, whatever. Either by someone else, or by a machine.
The opportunity is to make yourself indispensable. My best advice here (without having to become a geek like me) is to read the book Linchpin by Seth Godin. I also recommend The Adventures of Johnny Bunko: The Last Career Guide You'll Ever Need by Daniel H. Pink. It's super quick and easy to read as it's in the Japanese manga style comic book format.
Jobs to gigs
I first came across freelancers while working as a consultant in Berlin in the mid-1990s. Until this point my only experience of work was as a 'permie' (permanent employee). A 'permie' was what I was referred to by these freedom jockies. I soon twigged this was a mild form of poking fun. The sub-text was 'you poor, wage-slave'.
I was shocked to be landed on a project where more than half the team were 'professional' international IT contractors. They'd work for 6 months to a year on an all-expenses paid project in a city somewhere in Europe. (Often taking 3 months off in between). They'd get paid by the day, plus their hotel / apartment, food and (lots of) beer. They were there own boss. No office politics - except as a form of 3rd-party amusement. No arse-licking 360 reviews. They paid less tax than me. It was a lifestyle I envied at the time.
That year opened my eyes to the whole idea of working for myself. The freedom of freelancing. A few years after this experience I took the plunge myself and became an independent consultant. I did this for 9 years and never looked back.
Recognise that this is a tectonic shift: from permanent to self-employment (up 56% from 2000 to 2019 in the UK).
Many choose to be professional freelancers for lifestyle reasons. Others are forced into the low-wage, insecure gig-economy relying on platforms like Deliveroo or Uber Eats. These are two very different worlds, with starkly different pros and cons.
According to IPSE, as of 2019, "the solo self-employment sector continues to thrive and grow. At almost 4.6 million, a 40 per cent increase since 2008 and now accounting for 14 per cent of the UK workforce." The biggest attraction is the flexibility.
The opportunity is to decide whether this path is right for you. It's not for everyone. But for some (including myself for a long while) it's a much better fit than so-called permanent employment.
But beware, you need to treat freelancing as a business. Find a niche, position and market yourself. Do that and everything could work out well.
Given that permament jobs are becoming anything but permanent, I always advise permies to act as though they are freelance in terms of branding and marketing.
Freelance, or 'permanent' the last thing you want to do is to have to apply for a gig or job. Instead, get yourself known professionally. Build awareness and credibility in a niche. Do this so that employers and clients come to you. The only 2 questions they'll want to ask is: 1) Are you available? and 2) How much do I need to pay you?
Another benefit of freelancing is the ability to charge for the value you create rather merely than for your time. Figure out how much value you can bring to the client and charge a fee that is a fraction of that value. This aligns your interests with theirs - and so works better for both sides. I write more about this mindset in Picasso Pricing.
If flexibility and freedom to choose when, where and how you work is important to you then in the UK, I'd check out IPSE - the Association of Independent Professionals and the Self Employed.
Fitting in vs standing out
At school, we were (and 40 years later, my kids still are) expected to wear a uniform, sit the same standardised tests and give the same standard answers. Woe betide anyone who makes a mistake, looks or sounds different.
We must recognise however that to succeed in the 2020s we need to stand out, rather than fit in.
Whether applying for a job, attracting the next client or making the next sale, the trick is differentiate, to stand out - in a good but unexpected way.
The alternative is to be seen as a replaceable cog, where you are judged purely on price - the cheaper the better.
The opportunity is to stand out, to differentiate.
In a superb article, Different is BETTER than better, Sally Hogshead debunks the myth that we need to work harder to be better:
“Your competitive advantage is NOT the way in which you are incrementally better than the competition. Better keeps you chained to the same old way of working as your competition.”
“The good news is, you can compete. You can be the best in a competitive environment—if you use your natural personality advantages to attract the attention you need to succeed.”
And the punchline:
“Different is better than better. Being the best isn’t enough if nobody notices or cares. Stop trying to be THE best. Start being YOUR best.”
Bonus read: Purple Cow by Seth Godin. The book is aimed at businesses but the lessons apply just as well to individual permies and freelancers.
Scarcity to abundance
In 2010 I did my last freelance gig. I didn't know at the time but I was to spend the next 6 years learning about how the world wasn't an economic pie of fixed size. We're not born with fixed limits. That I wasn't too old to learn new skills and new mindsets. In fact, I was to learn more in those next 6 years than the previous 25 combined.
I realised that (almost) anyone can achieve so much more than they think they can, by accepting that they might. We all have different starting points in life but by opening our minds, paying attention, being unafraid to try and fail, we can do so much more.
Like many others at the time, I stumbled upon the 4-Hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss in 2009 or so. The insights that time is better than money, and access is better than ownership struck a nerve with me. You don't need to own a Ferrari to experience the value of being rich - just hire one for the weekend!
Not only does the 1950s mindset of fitting-in rather than standing-out hold us back but playing it safe is the riskiest thing we can do.
Whether you want to pay off your debts, accelerate your career, freelance, earn money on-the-side, start a business or non-profit, the opportunity is to shift from a so-called fixed mindset to a growth mindset. Learn more about this with Mindset - Changing The Way You think To Fulfil Your Potential by Dr Carol Dweck.
The robots are coming
Despite taking all the steps above, sooner or later the machines will eventually come for our jobs. OK, let's be clear. Not everyone and not all at the same time. As William Gibson said "The future is already here — it's just not very evenly distributed".
I've been building machines to do what people used to do since 1979! To me it's blindingly obvious that machines will continue to automate tasks that are routine and increasingly those that aren't.
You see, it's not jobs that are being replaced by machines but tasks. Jobs are made up of dozens or even hundreds of individual tasks and many of those tasks are routine. Increasingly, machines are becoming better-placed for non-routine tasks too. This is happening even in jobs that we think of as 'safe' in the professions like accounting, medicine and law.
Just 1% of the UK workforce now work in agriculture, and 60% less in manufacturing compared to the 1940s. All kinds of office, professional and other middle-class jobs are being hollowed out through task automation.
The most in-demand, highly skilled in the right industries will continue to take a bigger and bigger share of the income pie. Meanwhile those with in-demand, low (but hard to automate) skills will cling to increasingly low pay, insecure jobs.
Those in the middle however are being be squeezed out first: some will survive and do well for a while, but many more will be forced out to join the ranks of the low paid and unemployed.
Why are so few kids still not learning about how computers work at school today? It's that pesky, fixed 1950s mindset again. Computers are too hard. Proper jobs are in the professions, the social sciences and academia - so goes the myth.
Maybe a few weirdos will go off to art school. The rest can do hairdressing or plumbing. But computers... WTF even is that?
Realise that you cannot out-compete the machines. Realise that it's not just routine tasks that computers are replacing but with artificial intelligence they are replacing increasingly non-routine tasks.
Just ask Garry Kasparov who was the first world chess champion to be beaten by a computer in 1997. More recently, a computer called AlphaZero taught itself to play chess from scratch to superhuman level - in 9 hours!
In the short-term, the opportunity is to focus on what humans do best - hairdressing, plumbing and gardening may be better bets than the professions like accounting, GPs and solicitors - unless you're in the ever shrinking top bracket. Or, move to the dark side and learn to build and maintain the tech itself.
Read more about A World Without Work: Technology, Automation and How We Should Respond by Daniel Susskind
Saving to borrowing... and back again
Why is it that kids are still barely taught even the basics of personal finance at school? (Even at the 'best' private schools!) Compound interest, stocks and shares, money markets, ISAs and SIPPS are all studiously ignored. But why?
It's that insidious 1950s mindset at work again! The underlying assumption being that you will get a job-for-life with a good pension and so you don't need to worry about how money works. Your employer will take care of it all for you. Pensions et al. (Once upon a time it did - for some - but no more)
Reality started to bite when the first credit card hit the US in 1950 and then in the UK in 1966. That's when people stopped saving and started to borrow like there was no tomorrow. Combine easy credit, with the rise of TV, and mass advertising and you get consumerism and ever higher levels of personal debt.
The legacy banks and near-monopoly of credit bureaus continue to operate like it's 1955. If you don't fit the mould of a '50s home-owner, with a job-for-life you're going to struggle to get reasonably priced credit.
Meanwhile, income inequality has risen inexorably since 1980 to the point today where in the US the top 0.1% (160k people) own 22% of all wealth - the same as the bottom 90% of the population! This is the direction of travel across much of the West and beyond.
Technology is what has made the enormous rise in wealth and living standards possible. Both directly and indirectly through globalisation.
But... its also technology that has made the astounding increases in income and wealth inequality possible.
Technology itself is neutral. It's a tool. What matters is our mindset. Change that and we can do anything.
In the medium-term, it's up to us individually to carefully consider which direction we want to take nationally (and internationally) and vote accordingly (assuming you live in a democracy). For example, some form of universal basic income looks promising but ... let's test it and find out.
In the meantime, I would suggest thinking about each of the shifts I outline above, recognise what is happening, look for the opportunity and take action. To this end, I co-founded NestEgg to make it easier for people to recognise what they can do to turn their financial circumstances around. To stop borrowing and start saving for an uncertain world.