Recently, I read Seth Godin’s book Linchpin, and there was a quote in it that I wrote down because I wanted to truly think about just what the quote said, and how it relates to careers, management, and life in general. The book is a thought provoking read all the way through, but this particular quote seemed to stick with me long after I read it:
There are no longer any great jobs where someone else tells you precisely what to do
As Seth goes on to explain, once upon a time a great job was one working at a factory or a mill, where you put in an honest days work for an honest days pay. It was stable, solid work for stable, solid people.
Unfortunately, the world doesn’t work that way anymore, even if we continue to try and treat the workplace as if it does. If your job entails doing exactly what someone else tells you to do, that means you are eminently replaceable. As a manager I can get almost ANYONE to simply do exactly what I tell them to do all day long. Therefore, as a worker, the only thing you have to compete on with other workers is price. Basically, it makes sense for me to hire the person who will do exactly what I say for the least amount of pay if all I really need is someone to do what I say all day long. There’s very little skill differential between candidates for this type of job, so it comes down to how much it will cost me to hire someone for it.
The problem, of course, is that society hasn’t yet caught up to this reality. Education is still focused on teaching students to follow instructions, corporations are still focused on procedures and reporting structures that encourage following instructions, and managers are still busy running around telling their directs what to do all day long. In a nutshell, society is doing everything it can to develop a workforce that can follow directions, when that skill set is an absolute dead-end.
Let’s see how this works out in real life. Let’s say you’re a programmer. Each day you go in to the office and your manager tells you exactly what you should be coding, how you should code it, etc. Basically, you are there to simply do precisely what they tell you to do, along with the other 5 programmers on your team. There’s no real difference between your jobs, there’s no chance to really stand out among your peers, and there’s really nothing about what you’re doing the deserves to be recognized above your peers. You’re nothing but a cog in the machine that keeps spitting out code. For your manager this is both good, and bad. In the short term, it’s great. You keep working and putting out code that makes them look good, and they don’t have to really worry about paying you more or needing to replace you, because they’ll just bring in someone else to do exactly what they say. Over the long term though, this means that the manager is never going to get any fresh ideas from his or her reports. When the people above want something new, the manager will look out upon the sea of programmer cubicles, and there won’t be anyone there to step up, because that’s not the job they’ve created and filled with these programmers.
Yet, we see this play out over and over again in the corporate world. Because having irreplaceable workers means having to work hard to keep them, it’s easier to create jobs that are easily filled. So we just continue along the path of pretending that telling our directs exactly what to do = a great job, because….. “the economy”!
Yes, yes, of course, the problem with the labor market is the economy, once that picks up things will go back to the way they were. Except as the economy has improved, the labor market has not. Could that be because the way we structure and hire labor is out of whack with the reality of life in 2013? Management keeps pretending that they can do pretty much whatever they want in terms of crafting existing jobs into meaningless and low-paying cogs because we should just be thankful to have a job, but those same companies are now at a point where there’s nowhere else to go. They can’t pay less to make a less expensive product, we’ve hit rock bottom there. They don’t have anyone with great original ideas on staff any more, those people left for more money and the chance to have the freedom to create something new, and a whole lot of people who truly believed they would be taken care of if they just followed directions and worked hard, are out of a job, or seriously underemployed.
The only way this changes if we change our approach to work, both from the management and labor sides. Management, quit looking for the cheapest cog. You can’t compete on price alone any more. Labor, quit settling for jobs where you never get a chance to stand out or create something new. You’re better than that, but you’ll never get better than that if you don’t take some chances.
Simply put, there’s no mill or factory that is going to provide for your family for the rest of your life. The new economy requires different skills, and it requires a whole different approach to work than we’ve been taught. One that does not include someone else telling you what to do.