Living with change

Melting ice Flickr 24839019696_78efdc84be_z

Fear. Anxiety. Fear around uncertainty. Anxiety around instability.  We live in an era of exponential change, and the world of higher education is no exception.  It’s no longer clear if the old models of long-term employment hold for this sector as more and more institutions, with the support of their governing boards, are moving to contract employment. Non-tenure track faculty already account for 70% of the total workforce providing instruction at traditional nonprofit institutions.

People outside academia experience employment uncertainty as well.

What can you do to alleviate your employment worries? Take action! Just looking at what you can do, will help you from dwelling on the things that scare you. It will also help you more consciously design your own future. It may be that you simply need to tweak what you are already doing with better planning and follow-through, or it may be time to look at completely new alternatives to the work you now do.

Living with employment change

I’ve been through nine occupational changes in my life, including real estate market research, policy interpreter for a telecommunications industry, office manager for a small construction company, trying to find a solution for nuclear waste disposal, political reporter for the Texas legislature, environmental law paralegal, university administrator for a small Middle Eastern studies program, professional organizer, and now a coach for academics and career changers. Given my personal history, I have a real appreciation for changes driven by outside forces and inner aspirations. Each change for me involved equal parts fear and excitement. However, if you look closely, you will see the common thread: the ability to do research in order to perform the job.

Any career in today’s economy requires that you be a life-long learner, adaptable and nimble. To change career direction, or even remain employable, you will need to constantly update your skills.  It is estimated that half of what a technical student learns in his/her first year in school will be out of date by the time they are in their third year in school. So, a student’s acquired knowledge is out-of-date before graduation. This is especially true in computer science and the growing field of cybersecurity.

In the 21st century, most of us will have at least five different careers, and somewhere between 8-14 different employers, before we leave the paid work force. I myself have had 7 distinct work transitions to date. In an information-driven economy, it’s hard to even predict what jobs will be available or the type of higher level skills we will need ten years from now. We do know that the wage gap between those with higher level literacy skills and those without them continues to grow, in part due the constant increase in automating routine tasks.

It’s essential to recognize that your life and your career will be constantly in transition, and to be pro-active in response to change.

You have more control over your work than you may think

The new workplace requires a great deal more personal initiative. Daniel Pink writes in Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (2009) that good workers have autonomy and want to direct their own lives; good workers desire to pursue mastery, and good workers have a sense of purpose because they feel their work is done in the service of something larger than themselves. He adds that mastery involves three components:

  • Mastery is a mindset: It requires the capacity to see your abilities not as finite, but as infinitely improvable.
  • Mastery is a pain: It demands effort, grit, and deliberate practice.
  • And mastery is asymptote: It’s impossible to fully realize, which makes it simultaneously frustrating and alluring (p. 208).

Knowledge workers like academics can create an advantage for themselves by pursuing mastery of a particular topic. This expertise may be used in academia or taken elsewhere. Can you do more than describe a problem? Can you actually fix it? Or at least propose a possible solution? That’s valuable. In my town, the mayor meets regularly at coffee shops with constituents. He is always more likely to find time to meet again if given a proposal for change along with a complaint. Wouldn’t you feel the same way?

Having a fulfilling career balanced with a life you enjoy is a moving target in the 21st century. In the early 20th century, a career meant picking a profession and being hired by a company that would employ you from graduation through retirement. By the 1980s, that model had shifted with economic changes to promotion through lateral moves from one company to another. During the last recession of 2007-09, we have all learned once again that we must be prepared to cope with major shifts, be willing to reinvent or reposition ourselves, spot opportunities for growth, and recover from setbacks.

You can’t go home again

Paul Theroux, a well-known travel writer, tried to repeat his journey around the world by train roughly 30 years after his original trip. Nearly all the changes he encountered on the second journey were unplanned and unpredictable. Due to political changes, he was denied a visa to enter Iran, while areas that had previously denied him entry in Eastern Europe provided open access because of the fall of the Berlin Wall. In India, with a paradoxical change in both increased prosperity and widespread poverty, nearly everyone Theroux met had a mobile phone. Yet some things had not changed:  the trains still ran on time in India, but most of the roads for other vehicles remained terrible. At times, places Theroux had previously been able to get to by train, now required a boat or a plane to reach.

The journey in career development is similar: the old ways may no longer work, but the new ways may not yet be clear. Defining your values and your skills are important steps on the way. You may need some pragmatic help on doing informational interviews, converting a CV to a resume, and understanding more about the formal interview process. What do you need to do to get clarity for your own career choices? 2017 can be your own year of new beginnings.

In summary, as John C. Maxwell wrote, “Change is inevitable-growth is optional.”

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