Life After Jobs

Date May 30, 2008

Striving and Thriving

This month we pause in the series of profiles to present an article adapted from an upcoming e-book for people considering creative career choices and entrepreneurship.

Throughout most of human history, the work people did was determined by survival. Hunters and gatherers hunted and gathered. As people learned to cultivate crops and raise animals some gave up the nomadic lifestyle and settled down to establish villages and eventually cities. Although there were a few artisans and craftsmen, most of the work was focused on providing food for survival.

Before the founding of the United States the colonies were developed mostly by people who wanted land of their own to have a farm. This meant that early in the history of the nation, most people were self-employed or small business owners. Even the merchant traders and the specialty craftsmen like woodworkers and smiths worked for themselves. Few people had a job where someone else employed them. The farmhand worked with a goal in mind of having his own farm some day. The apprentice looked forward to becoming a master and having his own clients. What changed?

The Beginning Of The Job

Jobs as we know them were developed during the industrial revolution. Mass production in factories started to replace individual craftsmen. Factory owners paid a survival wage and were able to find plenty of people living in poverty willing to trade their freedom and put up with oftentimes terrible conditions for the promise of steady income. Factories created a demand for workers centralized in cities. People left rural areas and even moved from poorer countries to industrializing countries for the chance to have a job.

As more factories opened, the idea of large corporations running businesses in multiple sites evolved. Local small business owners were replaced by store managers and regional managers. Small-town doctors were replaced by satellite clinics of a hospital or larger medical group. Blacksmiths were replaced by local hardware stores, and those were replaced by Home Depot.

Comfortable In the Job-Box Rut

Improvements in technology and decades of fighting for workers’ rights have improved the situation for workers drastically. Today the conditions in the workplace are not so much terrible as annoying, and the level of compensation and additional “benefits” makes the notion of sacrificing freedom for a job almost benign. Just a few decades into this new paradigm, many people can’t imagine earning a living in any way other than having a job working for someone else.

Today, less than one hundred and fifty years since a time of high self-employment in the U.S., most people work for someone else and are terrified of starting their own business or trying self-employment. The ideas of self-determination and possibility that defined the entrepreneurial spirit of the past have waned. Only a few people value and pursue them, and they are considered unrealistic dreamers while they chase their dreams and the lucky privileged few when they achieve their dreams.

The expectation that a person can create his or her own destiny has been replaced with the expectation that each person should look for a good job and try to keep it. Growing up we were told, “Get a good job with a good company and keep working your way up.” This message told us a good company would provide great benefits, regular pay raises and promotions, job security, and a comfortable pension or other retirement program. Even though reality has taught us for over twenty years that the pattern isn’t reliable and is no longer realistic, lots of people still cling to the message and find their comfort and security in working for someone else. It’s a recurring theme in human civilization: we give up freedom for security, especially false security.

The End Of An Era

A couple of important trends are helping change things. First, people are living and working longer. Instead of dedicating twenty-five to thirty years to one company, retiring, and then passing on, people are sticking around! A worker can spend twenty or twenty-five years in a field and become bored with it. With plenty of productive years left, a lot of people see that as a mid-career point. They wonder if they can make big changes and do something more enjoyable or rewarding, or if they’re stuck working in the same field until they can afford to retire.

A related trend that amplifies the problems of a longer work life is the collapse of job security. Companies cut employees quickly to try to keep a profit margin. Acquisitions and mergers save companies money by reducing duplicated tasks and centralizing operations, which means “redundant” positions are cut. Entire industries are changing rapidly or disappearing as technology streamlines some positions and creates others. We are living longer, working longer, and having to find a series of jobs in a series of industries in order to support ourselves.

Another big event changing work habits and options is the technology revolution. With worldwide communication, computers, and the internet, people can provide a service for a company from their homes or a location near their homes but far from the company. Providing valuable work to a company doesn’t always mean being an employee. This frees people up to provide a similar service to multiple companies as a contractor or consultant.

More important, it counters the centralizing trend of industrialization and corporate growth. One individual can develop a product and have it produced and shipped out by partnering with one or two other small businesses. With internet-based marketing, they don’t need the huge distribution outlets or corporate retail locations to begin selling their items. Control is being returned to individuals little by little. A dramatic change in work is happening.

The Return Of Freedom

People can develop a small specialty business in a narrow niche and reach enough people to stay in business by reaching out to the world through a virtual store on the internet. They can produce useful information products, including printed books or workbooks, e-books, and audio recordings, and sell them along with partners on the internet. People who advise, guide, and train others, such as corporate consultants, executive coaches, and life coaches, can live in a smaller town or travel frequently but still “be at work” through teleconferencing and video conferencing.

More than any other time in history, an individual person is in a strong position to find a type of work, or even a few different types of work, that feel like a comfortable and natural fit to their gifts and way of seeing the world. They can choose things that speak to their passions and bring them excitement, happiness, and even joy. Developing an entrepreneurial spirit is one of the highest expressions of personal growth and development. Contrariwise, it is often an unexpected result for those who commit themselves to personal growth and development but aren’t thinking about work or careers in the beginning.

Leaving The Rut

Since so many people start out on a career path with the message of choosing something safe, something secure, and something where a corporation provides the paycheck and the benefits, it’s no wonder lots of them are getting restless after a few years. Most made a general career choice in high school or early in college, before they even knew their own gifts, talents, and passions well. Even then a lot of them were sidetracked by circumstances and wound up in a career that’s not even connected to the choices they made. It’s no wonder so many feel like they “settled” and missed out on choosing a career they would really enjoy.

When people start to open the boxes where they locked away their dreams, they often hear dire warnings of failure and bankruptcy and homelessness for those who try to start their own business or simply be self-employed. Even though those warnings come from people who never followed their dreams and don’t have personal experience with self-employment, it’s scary enough to persuade a lot of people to cram their dreams back in the box and lock it tight. Over time, most of us can hardly remember those dreams or hear the connection between our dreams and our souls.

People who are frustrated in their current work and ready for a new challenge or a big change or a fresh beginning are usually estranged from their dreams. They usually know what they don’t want, but a lot of them don’t really know what they do want. Those who have a better connection to their dreams usually don’t have a clear plan or support from their friends and family, and they can’t see how to make it happen. But most of us just have a distant, long-ago memory of getting excited by the idea of having fun doing work we would love.

Life, Liberty, And The Pursuit Of Happiness

That’s not a bad place to start. In fact, people who have a notion they could do work they enjoy and find meaningful are probably way ahead of people researching business opportunities or work-from-home options just to earn more money or get away from a frustrating job. The latter are often reacting in the moment and may trade one frustrating circumstance for another, or worse, wind up losing a lot of money following a questionable path due to desperation or greed. In the face of that frustration they give up and resign themselves to the rut. Some give up their plans for change for much smaller reasons, often because their immediate circumstances change just enough for them to accept the golden handcuffs of servitude.

Those who start with a desire to enjoy their work and make it part of a more meaningful and more authentic life have a sustaining motivation to take the steps towards long-term change. They value their lives and have a long-term vision of how they will be. They exercise their liberty to take charge of their circumstances and get control of their destinies. They seek the ultimate expression of a human life on earth, discovering and developing and sharing their gifts talents, and passions – that is, pursuing happiness.

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