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Your Career in a 401(k) World

401k 2

More things seem to be changing in my world than ever before, but I can’t quite put my finger on it, let alone know how to adapt. So let me try to put my finger on it: We now live in a 401(k) world — a world of defined contributions, not defined benefits — where everyone needs to pass the bar exam and no one can escape the most e-mailed list.--Thomas Friedman, It's a 401(k) World 

As I've been exploring career resilience and trying to talk with people about the shift that they need to take in their attitude toward their careers, I've been struggling with how to get it across to people that showing up is not enough anymore. That they can't just keep their heads down and hope that if they just follow directions, they will be OK. 

Now I see that Tom Friedman nails what's going on in an editorial from a few days ago:

Something really big happened in the world’s wiring in the last decade, but it was obscured by the financial crisis and post-9/11. We went from a connected world to a hyperconnected world. I’m always struck that Facebook, Twitter, 4G, iPhones, iPads, high-speech broadband, ubiquitous wireless and Web-enabled cellphones, the cloud, Big Data, cellphone apps and Skype did not exist or were in their infancy a decade ago when I wrote a book called “The World Is Flat.” All of that came since then, and the combination of these tools of connectivity and creativity has created a global education, commercial, communication and innovation platform on which more people can start stuff, collaborate on stuff, learn stuff, make stuff (and destroy stuff) with more other people than ever before.

What’s exciting is that this platform empowers individuals to access learning, retrain, engage in commerce, seek or advertise a job, invent, invest and crowd source — all online. But this huge expansion in an individual’s ability to do all these things comes with one big difference: more now rests on you.

If you are self-motivated, wow, this world is tailored for you. The boundaries are all gone. But if you’re not self-motivated, this world will be a challenge because the walls, ceilings and floors that protected people are also disappearing. That is what I mean when I say “it is a 401(k) world.” Government will do less for you. Companies will do less for you. Unions can do less for you. There will be fewer limits, but also fewer guarantees.Your specific contribution will define your specific benefits much more. Just showing up will not cut it. (My emphasis) 

This is the thing. Each one of us is placed in the position of either steering the ship of our own aspirations and development or of having those decisions made for us by companies and organizations that aren't going to have our best interests at heart. It will be virtually impossible for you to thrive, and possibly even survive if you aren't willing to take a more active role in your own development. 

I don't entirely agree with this shift. I'm personally troubled by the fact that the belief seems to be that we all need to figure it out on our own and that if we aren't actively contributing to the economy, we can forget about having any kind of safety net or supports. I aspire to something different as a way of life. BUT, I'm also aware of reality. And we have to always plan for what is, not what we wish could be. 

Right now, we are living in a world that REQUIRES you to be self-motivated and in charge of your own career if you hope to maintain any level of security or stability in your work life. Even with self-motivation, it will still be a rockier road.  As Friedman points out in his piece, it's difficult to get the information that's needed to make good decisions about developing your competencies even when you are taking charge of your career. 

Friedman also points out the value of many of the things I've been talking about here in terms of the 4 resilience patterns of Clarifying, Connecting, Creating and Coping:

 “Just as having a 401(k) defined contribution plan requires you to learn more about investing in your retirement, a 401(k) world requires you to learn much more about investing in yourself: how do I build my own competencies to be attractive to employers and flourish in this world,” said Byron Auguste, a director at McKinsey and one of the founders of Hope Street Group, which develops policies to help Americans navigate this changing economy. “As young people rise to that challenge, the value of mentors, social networks and role models will rise.” . . . 

When I say that “everyone has to pass the bar now,” I mean that, as the world got hyperconnected, all these things happened at once: Jobs started changing much faster, requiring more skill with each iteration. Schools could not keep up with the competencies needed for these jobs, so employers got frustrated because, in a hyperconnected world, they did not have the time or money to spend on extensive training. So more employers are demanding that students prove their competencies for a specific job by obtaining not only college degrees but by passing “certification” exams that measure specific skills — the way lawyers have to pass the bar. Last week, The Economist quoted one labor expert, Peter Cappelli of the Wharton business school, as saying that companies now regard filling a job as being “like buying a spare part: you expect it to fit.

To see where you need to invest, you need Clarity about your strengths and the opportunities around you. Mentors, role models and social networks are the heart of the Connecting pattern.  And "passing the bar" means Creation--creating value and creating structures that allow you to continually renew and refresh your skills. 

The biggest change, though, that we're going to have to deal with is ensuring that we all recognize the profound way in which the world has shifted. It is not enough to just show up anymore, ready to follow orders. Only those who become active creators of their own careers will be able to survive, let alone thrive, in this new, hyperconnected world. 

The question is, how willing are we to accept this responsibility for ourselves? How well are we communicating this to our children and to the other young people in our lives? 



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