Monday, April 09, 2012

Then and Now

My father was a writer and editor. He studied his profession as he worked at it, always reading about writing while writing, and working with other writers to improve his skill. He worked in the publishing industry in NYC, during a period of time that could well be called "The Golden Age" of book publishing, where a new literacy after WWII begat hordes of new readers, especially women and young people, and new college aspirants. It was a time when men chose a profession and worked to pursue what they saw as its fulfillment, and when a current position did not indicate a direction towards professional fulfillment, then they switched to one that did.

So the formula, maybe amazingly to people in the current working generations, was to get an education in the field you were interested in, use that to get in the door at a company you wanted to work for, and then work for that company as long as you wanted, adhering to their ruleset and culture, unless you felt you weren't getting what you wanted in terms of career advancement. If that occurred, you would submit a resume' to another company that did the same thing, and go work for them, often for considerably more money.

People didn't consider that their company might be acquired and they might be part of a "consolidation" and then be "laid off for business reasons" regardless of how well they performed. People didn't really consider that their skills might become obsolete or less useful. There were in some ways many more rigid constraints (who did not go to work at the office in a jacket and tie?) but in other ways much more freedom-- business agreements were sealed over lunch in ways that might now seem shady or "exclusive to outsiders".

Why? Because there were fewer people that were talented enough to perform well in the positions that were needed to be filled, because the nation was growing by leaps and bounds in the 1950's and 1960's. So your place in your field, in your profession, was not just a career, it was a dot to be connected to in an expanding network that was fueled by inexpensive resources and clear purposes. If that dot wasn't there, the network couldn't operate as smoothly, in a time when phone calls, typed correspondence and dictaphone-transcribed memoranda were the means for business.

In addition, to have a savings, to have a pension, nest egg or solid investment was a luxury. Investing in the stock market was a perilous endeavor for only the most savvy and wealthy: your money would most likely grow, yes, but shares went up pennies at a time over years for the most part, and only large amounts of shares would yield significant dividends and increase in value.

It strikes me that part of the opening up of the investment sphere with 401k plans and personal electronic trading is one of the reasons that the individual who has an idea that their career would carry them on an uninterrupted pursuit of increased means and professional excellence for a lifetime would today seem somewhat delusional. Shareholder value, increasing shareholder value, has become the corporate mantra. And because almost everybody is a shareholder, almost everybody has a stake in it.

So if your career path is torpedoed by a merger or acquisition, if your company is sold or broken up at a key time in your lifepath because the executive leadership sees a unique opportunity, it is part of the larger scheme that you may well be benefitting from as far as your investments are concerned. That stock that you bought, or that was invested in for you, that suddenly went up and bolstered your nest egg? Well it might just be a legion of laid off workers toting cardboard boxes full of office knick-knacks that was responsible for that. Yes, it doesn't help you with your current bills, but you see, it is still value, still money, still generating prosperity.

Instead of working towards a better grasp of one's profession and more proficient performance, then, are more people working to understand what's going to happen next, to get an idea of when to bail, or when to hang on and reap a severance package? And with each bump, with each stranding or rough landing, with each time their 401k screams down through a scorching re-entry, are they becoming more and more hardened, more and more cynical about any ultimate benefit to working at all?

Maybe more odd, are we realizing that the people who are old enough to be our parents  and who own, run and sit on the boards of today's large corporations and in the seats of government, grew up in a world that was completely different? That maybe some, or many, or even all of them still see the world as being that way?


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