Articles > Out of Work and Unprepared

Out of Work and Unprepared
Globe & Mail, April 10, 2001

Barbara Moses, Ph.D, is an international speaker, work/life expert, and best-selling author of Dish: Midlife Women Tell the Truth About Work, Relationships, and the Rest of Life.

Andrew is a poster boy for the New Economy. A 29-year-old with an MBA from the University of Western Ontario, his vocabulary is crammed with New Economy junk speak: high-value customer, strategic partnering, skills sets, brand me. Until recently, he was in charge of business development for a new-media public relations firm with a six-figure salary.

"We're changing the way business is done," he told me just six months ago. "We're fast, we're fluid, we can turn on a dime. We're branding ourselves and we're branding our company. It's a whole new paradigm."

Today, Andrew's company is bankrupt and he's out of a job. He has no money in the bank and he needs to find a new job fast. But that will not prove so easy. For all his apparent sophistication, Andrew cannot articulate what he is good at. Nor can he define a career objective outside of the work he most recently did.

The recent dot-com collapse has not only cost jobs and wrecked stock portfolios, it has shattered people's dreams -- and left some of them ill-equipped to pick up the pieces.

Over the past decade, for people like Andrew, work has become not just a means of economic survival but a movement. Caught up in the euphoria, many believed their jobs would transform the world.

There were many attractive features to this vision. People could find niche workplaces that reflected their values and lifestyle and fit them like a pair of perfect brand-name jeans. They could bring their dog to work, shoot pool in the lunchroom, or take time off to run a marathon.

But did anything really change? Beneath the facade, business continued much as usual. There was still a bottom line, no matter how carefully obscured it was by the general endorphin rush of being in on the ground floor of an express elevator to financial heaven.

And while they were drinking cappuccinos and shooting pool, the dot-com foot soldiers were still pulling all-nighters and killer work weeks.

Amidst the transformational babble, we forgot that dot-coms were simply another vehicle for doing business. A generation of microfibre-clad, martini-drinking, cellphone-toting free agents didn't really change the work world -- they only redecorated it.

As a result, a lot of people have been caught with their pants down. They have ignored the basics of self-management, such as: knowing what your skills are and being able to articulate them; having a fallback position and not living as if stock options grow on trees.

Still, one can hardly fault these young knowledge workers. Unlike their predecessors -- who entered the work force from the late 1980s to the mid-1990s and had to compete for every career bone thrown their way these younger workers were courted as the darlings of the New Economy. They have never witnessed a recession, and many never mastered some of the fundamentals of job hunting in a competitive market.

There is an irony here: This generation has mastered the maxims of the new workplace, such as free agency, self-reliance, and serial jobs. And although these workers may appear cocky, many of them lack the self-confidence that comes from proving yourself in an intensely competitive marketplace.

Sharon, for example, is the ultimate free agent, the veteran of seven increasingly senior positions in three different cities by the age of 34. Ambitious and readily nomadic, she went to where the action was, building up an apparently impressive rÈsumÈ. But now she finds herself out of a job and her stock options reduced to kitty litter lining. Although initially impressed, recruiters say Sharon lacks depth and can't substantiate her accomplishments in a meaningful way.

Sharon is very comfortable selling herself and knows all the buzzwords, but she has only networked with people exactly like herself, and has not cultivated or maintained long-term relationships. She now finds herself without any real community of support, and having spent eight years proclaiming her own busyness, now finds other people much too busy to talk to her.

There are many Sharons out there. This generation -- many of its members latchkey kids of career-obsessed parents -- was socialized to be highly individualistic and self-reliant. The downside is an exaggerated sense of personal efficacy at the expense of connectedness to others.

The good news, however, is that having weathered a shifting culture, this generation is far more fluid and adaptive. And while today's reversals may come as a shock, their fundamental optimism, resilience, and self-efficacy will ultimately hold them in good stead.