Working to live, not living to work, in the 21st Century

Any discussion of worklife needs to break this compound word into its component parts, work and life. Most people, if asked, would probably say that they work to live, not the reverse. There are people whose work is their life; perhaps those in the arts would say that they live to paint or write or make music and that they can make a living at it is a bonus. Otherwise, the cliché of the actress waiting tables is an example of someone who is working to live but not engaged in her life’s work.

This means the separation of “job” from “career.” Some jobs are not intended to be career positions. It’s expected that the student working at McDonald’s is just passing through although a few may decide that becoming a crew leader then store manager might be a good path to a fast food career. Working in retail sales might be classified as a job and not a career but some people develop the craft of salesmanship into a career and can be considered professional salesmen.

Professionalism might be the key to understanding what people do for a living. It is not merely getting paid for what you do. It is about whether or not you have an intrinsic ability that you are using and that you carry out your activities up to a recognizable standard or performance. We certainly recognize the major professions like medicine, law, engineering, and accounting. They have clearly defined ethical standards, regulatory boards and standards of practice. This notion of a moral code, even a special morality of a profession, has long been considered a hallmark of defining a profession.

However, self-regulation is more than lawyers regulating other lawyers via a state bar association. It is whether not people, engaged in their crafts, can be expected to rise up to a certain level of quality. If you can ply your trade anywhere that you can find clients and you are really the only person who knows if you are doing the best possible job, you might well be a professional. In this light, a registered nurse who takes his skills from one hospital to another is practicing a profession. A studio musician who goes from one recording company to another to accompany different performers is acting as a professional. Specialty bartenders or disc jockeys could well be considered professionals in the hospitality industry, able to pick up their skills and perform them for different clients. Portability, then, seems to be a key to professionalism.

Looking back a couple of generations puts us in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In this era, unions were still strong and manufacturing was a major part of the economy. The peak of private union membership was 28.3% in 1954, according to a Cornell University study. The nation had made its change from agrarian to industrial emphasis and those working across the Midwest were building cars and appliances or producing the steel and titanium needed for those products. Americans were enjoying a high standard of living, especially in these trades where good wages and benefits had resulted from strong unionization. In the United Steelworkers or United Auto Workers, members were assured of getting their hours, security in their jobs, and vacation time to enjoy the fruits of their labors.

Being a “company man” was considered a good thing and it was not uncommon to spend an entire career at Ford or US Steel. Living in a company town didn’t necessarily mean that your employer was your landlord but it was pretty likely that other people in your neighborhood worked where you did or in some supporting activity like shipping or supply. Your kids would grow up together and there was a stable community with stable values.

This was the life experience of my family, as well as the country. My uncles and aunts in Ohio benefited from the big union jobs, driving big cars and dressing their kids for the holidays as if they were going to be on the Andy Williams Christmas Special. My father, who did not want any part of the mines or the mills or the factories, elected to make the Air Force his career. After more than 21 years as a medic, he retired in 1975 and went to work for the county hospital for another two decades. Even though he earned promotions in both and retired as a department head, he really only had two jobs in his whole life.

Those halcyon days are long gone and it is more likely that workers will get 30 hours per week in combined part-time jobs than a 30-year career with one company. This may be why he never really understood the challenges of my career. While I have stayed in my field of higher education, just as Dad stayed in healthcare, my 35 years as a professional have been much messier. However, I think I have been as representative of my generation’s career path as he was of his.

To stay engaged in my chosen profession of education, I have had eight job changes, each requiring a physical move. Economics professor Enrico Moretti of the University of California, Berkeley, says that mobility inequity is a factor that is trapping workers in high unemployment areas. If they can’t afford to move, they can’t go where the jobs went. My father never understood why I didn’t “just get another job in Tallahassee.” After all, that was where most of my friends were and it was close to my folks in Panama City. Never having gone through it, he found it hard to believe that it took me eight months and over 200 application packages to get four offers, each hundreds of miles from home. Welcome to the new economy.

At the macro level, most people will change careers, not jobs, multiple times. These are not small moves like bookkeeper to accountant to finance manager. We’re talking military officer to banker to nurse, personal reinvention due to career necessity.

What does this do to self-identity? Instead of being able to say “I’m an autoworker” or even “I work for Pontiac,” it becomes “I’m currently working for Sears.” This is like saying “I’d like you to meet my future ex-wife,” as though there is no sense of permanence and no shame in admitting it. I know that I actually withdrew from society because I had no idea how to introduce myself without a job or business cards. All I had was my name and what good was that?

Into this new economy and job-scared landscape, the nature of the workday has changed. In an era where everyone is disposable, employers have a clear upper hand in making demands on workers’ lives. As private sector unions dwindle in membership and public sector unions cannot keep workers from getting furloughed whenever Congress’ dysfunction meter breaks 10, workers accede to whatever demands are placed upon them to preserve their tenuous employment. Harvard Business School Professor Jim Heskett calls modern workers “hostages” who are dissatisfied with their jobs by a 55-45 margin but, amazingly, 81 percent are not looking for another job, perhaps afraid they can’t find another job.

As we moved from an industrial to an information service based economy, there were supposed to be tremendous efficiencies from information technology, ushering in the paperless office and the four-day work week. What will we do with all of this leisure time? Apparently, it was sucked into a time warp and came out the other side as more workweek.

In the 1990s, I saw this when I was in state government. Senior managers were issued the new, clunky, and expensive cell phones because the Capitol might need to be in touch with them at any time. We in the next layer were issued beepers and AT&T calling cards. I recall being paged on a long pine tree-lined stretch of Interstate 10. Before I could find an exit ramp, I was paged again. When I finally found an exit ramp where I could pull into a gas station with a public pay phone, I called the office to find out what was so damned urgent. It was some routine question about a report that wasn’t due yet. As I walked back to my motor pool car, with the sounds of banjos receding into the distance, I realized that I needed a cell phone. However, the State felt that I should buy it and pay for my minutes myself. The State also needed my cell phone number so they could use it to get in touch with me day or night. Telling them that it was a personal line, only known to my girlfriend and bookie, did not seem to be sufficient reason for me to retain my privacy or authority over my own property.

Once it became commonplace for private citizens to have reliable Internet access, it didn’t immediately lead to telecommuting so that we all could become “Mr. Mom” or work in our bathrobes. Instead, it meant that work could be carried home for the weekend, official systems could be accessed remotely, and assignments could be made on Friday to be done “by Monday morning.” Even when flex-time and working from home became acceptable, it began to inexorably expand into an all-day affair. Now that email syncs to smartphones, I have had students contact me after 11 pm on a Sunday night to request extensions for work due Monday morning. Why would they even think I was checking my phone or computer at that hour? The idea of ever being “off duty” is becoming socially unacceptable.


About drronthomasjr

Dr. Ron Thomas, Jr. heads Thomas Consulting Group, a consortium of professionals in leadership, crisis management, and media relations.
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