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Planning for Career and Life
Job Surfing on the Tidal Waves of Change

by David C. Borchard

Career counselor David Borchard looks at how seeming career disasters, such as layoffs and midlife crises, can actually help you in the long run.

During his quarter of a century career with a Fortune 500 corporation, Sam worked his way up the career ladder from entry-level computer programmer to high-ranking general manager. Recently, however, he opted to accept a buy-out package and said good-by to his long-term corporate home-- seven years before retirement eligibility. Despite his outstanding performance, Sam felt compelled to accept the "buy-out" option in lieu of being released later with a less generous severance package, given that the corporation was reengineering to survive fierce global competition. Now, one year after leaving the corporation, Sam has totally re-designed his life and career. No longer does the corporation determine his career. In his new life, he is the corporation.

For Jeanne, a veteran registered nurse, the triggering event for a career-transition came in a sudden "wallop" of awareness one evening while working the hospital shift. She recalls, "I was standing at the medicine dispensary when it just hit me: My job had become little more than pill dispenser. When I first started this business I felt that my skills were highly valued and that I made a real difference. But medical technology and hospital practices had changed all that."

This shock sent Jeanne into four years of confusion: "Here I was, 36 years old, and I no longer knew where I was going," she says. "I went to counseling for help. I had to find a new direction." By talking to people who were doing things that seemed interesting to her and through extensive reassessment, she discovered a new occupational passion: massage therapy.

Sam and Jeanne have two important things in common. First, they had prepared for and were actively pursuing traditional twentieth-century careers. Second, they were overtaken at mid-career by new circumstances. Change dramatically altered their work situations.

Futurists refer to this magnitude of change--in which a prevailing structure is radically, rapidly, and unalterably transformed by new circumstances--as a paradigm shift. The structural changes engulfing us over the past couple of decades have transformed our world from a corporation-centered and manufacturing-based order (the Mass Production Era) to that of a predominantly service-based, technology and information-driven system (the Knowledge-Service Era). Until confronted with the harsher realities of these changes, Sam and Jeanne had been busily engaged in successful lives and careers without giving much thought to the future. Their futures had seemed secure, predictable, and on track.

Death and Rebirth

Unwelcome job change or termination notices can be to career what unexpected terminal medical diagnoses are to life -- "blows from a psychic sledgehammer." But both kinds of notices can also serve as wake-up calls. In either case, resistance and denial tend to be the first predictable reaction, followed by anger and grief. However, a rapidly growing body of literature suggests that those who move through these emotional stages and accept death's inevitability can let go of attachments to the past and move through life's final transition -- often in an apparent state of bliss. In a similar manner, the death and dying of a lifestyle or career can awaken us to the inevitability of change and transition.

While impending physical death signals an ending to the reality we have known in this dimension, career death can actually awaken us to intriguing new possibilities -- to a rebirth experience. A great many people who have weathered major storms report that their job loss was actually a blessing in disguise. It forced them to think about, seek out, and discover something new and better.

Now an event even greater than individual endings confronts us -- the death of an era. We have come to the end of life in the Mass-Production Era. Our rebirth as individuals and as a collective society depends upon letting go of old paradigms and embracing a new, but foggy reality. The major issue of life and work in the twentieth century may well be the challenge associated with letting go of familiar lifestyle structures.

Career Development and Transitions

The term career/life planning originated from a career counselor intending to convey two rather novel notions: first, that the time had arrived when we could and needed to assume greater personal autonomy over our individual futures, and, second, that we could design and develop careers that capitalized on our unique interests, talents, and personalities.

Perhaps the major change evolving in personal career/life planning is the nature of when, where, and how we choose our futures. In the Mass Production Era, career development was primarily an event-based and haphazard task (see Chart A). The conventional wisdom was that we would make our career choice about the time we graduated from high school and then stick with it.

If you went to college in the Mass Production Era, you were slotted for the white-collar track in a management or professional capacity. Once hired by a company (most likely one of the Fortune 500's) your career decision making was essentially over. Organizations placed "their" employees into jobs and onto career tracks. And there you remained, knowing that advancement up this specified track was the way to go.

CHART A

Career Development: Then & Now

Structural
Characteristics

Mass Production Era(1865*--1980s**)

Knowledge-Service Era (l980s- -and beyond)

Economic reality:

job creating forces

Huge manufacturing industries oriented to the national economy

Knowledge-service enterprises, competing in a global market

Job market structure/

dominant job types

Two-tiered factory:

• blue collar (B/C)

• white collar (W/C)

Multi-tiered (no tiered) mixed technical, service, professional, executive

Occupational characteristics

A few stable, clearly classifiable types

Many rapidly evolving & amorphous types

Career Preparation

Complete your education and then get a job

Continual working-learning, keeping pace with information and technology growth

Career choice:

how you enter and pursue a career

Luck, happenstance, what you happened to know about or fall into

Decision-making aided by a professional, and ongoing attention

 

How you get jobs

B/C : family work ties W/C: resumes, classified ads, placement services

Skill/competency based on self-definition and ongoing networking

Primary employment targets

Fortune 500 corporations

Smaller companies, skill contracting agencies, self-employment

Who controls

your career

The organization

The individual (with the aid of professionals)

Career development objective

Climbing prescribed organizational ladders

Personal development in areas of expertise

Employment

source

One organization for entire career

Series of organizations and contracting agents

Primary employment concerns (rewards)

Salary, benefits, leave, promotions, titles

Developing potentials, pursuing work interests

Major career

limitations

Restrictions based on sex, race, age, religion

Skills, knowledge, and job development savvy

Retirement financing

Company retirement and Social Security

Portable, personal retirement programs

Retirement considerations

40 years - gold watch, and no work ever again. Relax, play, travel, die

Ongoing balance in self developing work, leisure, learning

 

Of course, people occasionally did get fired, usually for poor performance, necessitating a career reassessment. Now "poor performance" is often recognized as a motivation problem or competency mismatch rather than a deficit or character issue. One can't help but wonder how much damage to personal esteem might have been prevented had there been more-effective career-development assistance available.

Today, both the old organizations and the newly evolving ones know that, to be around in the twenty-first century, they must obtain the best from their workers. That realization helped spawn the human resource development movement as the organizational vehicle for connecting individuals with the right assets and motivations to the right tasks.

As a result, organizations are continually eliminating nonproductive functions and constantly reassessing, reshuffling, and retraining staff. Unfortunately, it also means layoffs for those whose skills or motivations don't mesh with new directions. Over the past two decades Fortune 500 companies have laid off millions of workers to reengineer organizational functions. A rapidly growing pool of highly competent and productive workers, many in their middle-years, have been forced to reassess career decisions. This new phenomena is not a temporal anomaly -- it's the new reality.

Self-knowledge and Planning

Workplace changes aren't the only changes affecting our career/life planning. Another transformational force is our new focus on adult psychological development. The values of adults in their early 20s are usually very different from those in their 30s and 40s, and these are often very different from those in their 50s and 60s. As a result, a good career choice in our youth may sour in later life. With far fewer of the Mass Production Era's infamous "golden handcuffs" locking us into jobs, and with prospects for more portable benefits packages, we should be freer to pursue our personal work interests in future years.

Career transitioners and job changers of today and tomorrow will also benefit from more and better professional career-counseling assistance increasingly available from a variety of sources such as human resource development programs, adult continuing education programs, private practitioners, and community centers.

We may not know what the future will bring, but we can determine what we will bring to the future. It makes sense to make self-development a priority. Self-development-- and self-knowledge-- are essential in planning our futures.

Neither fun nor passion was afforded much credibility as a career planning orientation in the past. Passion, in this context, refers to a very personal and energizing interest in some kind of activity or cause. In the new era, there are far more choices available to more individuals than ever before, and there are far more opportunities to create new enterprises."

Stress also changes our perspectives about career planning. Our current stress levels have undoubtedly been elevated by decades of conditioning to seek job security and avoid risk. Pursuing a uniquely personal passion may well be the best antidote to stress in our chaotic times

Career/life planning is part of continuing and life-long process-- not a sporadic event as it was in the Mass Production Era (see Chart B). Intelligent career/life planning in the Knowledge-Service Era necessitates ongoing assessment, decision-making, problem solving, and creating opportunities within two separate but intimately related dimensions of reality: the inner world of self and perception the outer world of work and environment. Chart C, "Career-Development Processes" portrays a model that attempts to take into account the relationship between these two changing spheres of human existence.

 

CHART B

CAREER DECISION-MAKING EVENT

Clarifying transferable skills

Identifying top personal assets

Developing interesting possibilities

Exploring and choosing

Goal setting and action planning

 

 

There are a variety of dynamic forces acting upon us as we evolve in our careers, and these forces are generated from both the inner and outer worlds. A major change in either realm upsets equilibrium and initiates a drive to regain a "personal comfort zone." This process works much like a thermostat regulating room temperature. We all possess such a regulating mechanism to keep our systems at a self-determined, albeit unconscious, comfort zone. When anything upsets this setting, our system reacts by attempting to return things to normal.

For example, a great many of those who lost tenured track positions-- such as middle managers with General Motors, aeronautical engineers with Lockheed, and blue collar workers with Bethlehem Steel, suffered serious psychic consequences. Emotional trauma is experienced not only from the actual loss of salary and benefits but even more so from the perceived loss of self-worth. Concentrating one's problem-solving and decision-making efforts solely on

getting another job won't necessarily reestablish homeostasis. That would make no more sense than repairing the body of car damaged in a head-on collision without attending to the engine. An important aspect of change must address the human engine -- the self.

Career Development Process Diagram

 A major change within the inner realm of the self (mental, emotional, and spiritual) may also upset equilibrium and produce career ramifications. Dramatic and unforeseen changes, such as the loss of a dearly loved one or a traumatic deterioration in one's own health, are sure to disrupt a sense of personal order. But there are other less-apparent dynamics that can generate perplexities from the inner-world-- confrontations with one's aging, emotional burn-out, personal values shift, existential angst, spiritual awakening, and personal meaning crises such as that experienced by Jeanne, the disillusioned nurse who turned massage therapist.

Sam and Jeanne and the Career Cycle

The real-life experiences of Sam and Jeanne help to show how the career transition process might proceed in these paradigm-changing times. In both cases, exterior forces over which they had no control had undermined their traditional twentieth century careers. Until pushed into the realization that it was time to change, they had been preoccupied with the outer-world dynamics of their careers. Now both had to reassess.

In terms of the above depicted career-development model (Chart C), Sam and Jeanne were catapulted from the Action quadrant into the Self-understanding quadrant. Both realized they could not stay where they were. In Sam's case the kinds of jobs he had held were melting like old snow in warm spring showers. With Jeanne, the old satisfactions had just faded away. But after so long in one career mode they felt unprepared to deal with their major predicament,

Sam, the ex-corporate manager, had the advantage of a healthy severance check and company sponsored outplacement services, which included psychological assessments and numerous sessions with a career counselor. Jeanne, a disillusioned nurse, decided to engage the services of a professional counselor to obtain deeper self-awareness and to help clarify her personal interests and career possibilities. Sam and Jeanne's self-inquiry focused around questions such as:

  • Who am I now?
  • What do I truly value?
  • What are my core personal assets?
  • What do I really want to do?
  • What new possibilities are available or could I create?

New Directions

With new insights from asking themselves these kinds of questions, Sam and Jeanne moved to the Possibilities quadrant of the model by generating a lengthy list of interesting ideas. The most important thing here is to tap creative ideas, particularly those that connect with personal potentials and passions. Even though Sam and Jeanne were initially able to identify a few interesting possibilities, their counselors pushed them for more, emphasizing quantity rather than quality -- the rationale being that you can't get to real quality without first tapping a number of ideas with power.

Currently, Sam divides his time between a new business venture and meaningful volunteer activities. With two other associates he is in the process of creating a high-tech toy combined with an innovative game concept. The new game--which involves physically manipulating a rapidly spinning gyro mechanism thorough a field of obstacles--has been market tested and patented in Japan. As Sam sees it, this is a risky venture, but one that is so much fun and offers so much opportunity that he has found it irresistible.

Through all of this, Sam has paid attention to the kinds of lifestyle activities that energize him, allocating a portion of his time to Habitat for Humanity and The United Black Fund. He puts his corporate management skills to good use in helping to coordinate new volunteers and committee work for fund-raising efforts with organizations he knows well -- Fortune 500's.

"I am using old skills in new ways, and developing other skills that I had little time for," says Sam. "I don't think you could get me back into the old corporate mode, although, I don't rule anything out."

For Jeanne, it has now been several years since her "wallop" experience. Today, she is an expert massage therapist and sole owner of a highly successful massage practice in Washington, D.C. Jeanne's practice is successful enough to employ a number of other therapists and to have been featured upon occasion in the local media. She counts as clients people from a wide variety of professions, including high government officials. "One person's muscles are pretty much like the next. It's just that some are more tense than others," says Jeanne.

Jeanne recalls that once she opted for massage therapy as her new career objective, she had to determine how to become a credentialed massage therapist and then how to make a living. To become a formally certified massage therapist, she completed an 18-month training program sanctioned by the American Massage Therapy Institute. She started her new career by becoming partners with an individual who had a developing practice and needed help.

In the long and often difficult transition to her new life and career, Jeanne recalls that the hardest part was in giving up a sense of security, "I was at the height of my career, and I had to let go of that. When you can do that, all of a sudden possibilities begin to open up. But once you've decided upon your new direction you must be ready to do whatever is needed to create a healthier situation. You may even have to give up a valued relationship, an important job, even your old ideas about what's truly important."

Succeeding in the New Era

The career transition experiences of Sam and Jeanne suggest at least three principles for career/life management in the Knowledge Service Era:

  1. No longer can we trust an outside agent, whether it be a corporation, the union, government, or luck, to tend our career. Today, we have little choice than to personally manage our lives and careers. That requires letting go of outmoded mind-sets about what careers are supposed to be and becoming far more creative, savvy, and self-directing than we have ever before needed to be.
  2. Career development has become so complex that it is difficult to undertake alone successfully. The good news is that there are more services becoming available all the time. Many corporations have either created or contracted for human-resource services that include career development assistance. Even the federal government is creating skill clinics to provide career counseling. A growing number of community centers, schools, colleges, and individuals offer professional career counseling.
  3. Career developers in the new paradigm recognize the market value of individually unique attributes and talents. Personal profiles of uniqueness translate into some careers that fit and others that don't. While the "cookie cutter" mentality of the Mass Production Era provided little opportunity for pursuing individual differences, that is no longer the case. Now, our future satisfaction and success require decision-making based on self-awareness.

For those who fail to take advantage of the opportunities for self-development and self-direction that the Knowledge-Service Era increasingly provides, the future may look dismal. For those who recognize the opportunities available in the new era and are willing to take full advantage of them, the future has never been brighter. Seeing the promise of the future generates hope, energy, and enthusiasm. Viewing the future though the eyes of fear results in becoming victims of our feelings.

Sam and Jean are not immune from the fear of living in a rapidly changing and highly unpredictable world. But neither stays stuck in fear. They consciously balance their anxieties about gloomy prospects with excitement about new and interesting possibilities. It is these opportunities for career and life that have motivated them to move from taking directions to making directions.

______________________________________________________

Note: This article was originally published in the January--February 1995 issue of THE FUTURIST. Used with permission from the World Future Society, 7910 Woodmont Avenue, Suite 450, Bethesda, Maryland 20814. Telephone 301/656-8274; Fax: 301/951-0394; http://www.wfs.org/wfs

 

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