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Handy Guide to What's Coming in Our Careers
Charles Handy looks at the future of jobs and employment

By: John Shepler

Pick up a newspaper. Any paper, any edition. Somewhere in the national or business section you'll see two stories that seem to conflict. The first talks of an unprecedented business expansion with an ever rising stock market and the lowest unemployment in twenty or thirty years. Just inches away you'll find a report that such and such company is laying off two or three thousand workers. There they sit, side by side, with no editorial comment. Yet something seems amiss. Does this really make sense?

It makes no sense in the expectations most of us grew up with. You stayed in school to get a good job. Only dropouts bounced around from job to job, never knowing what they'd be doing next. You picked what you wanted to be early in life and were told to choose carefully because that was what you would be doing the rest of your life. High School was preparation for College. College was preparation for a life's work. You picked a good profession and went to work for a good company so you'd be "set for life." If you didn't or couldn't go the college route, you went to junior college or nursing school, joined a trade union or perhaps went into the family business. Whatever the choice, you were setting up for your future. It was a future that might be clearly seen.Charles Handy Book

What nobody told you, because nobody knew, is that the world would change right before your eyes. You can't tell where a car is built anymore because the parts come from all over the world. One of the "big three" automakers is soon to be a foreign company. Banks seem to change names every few weeks, not that there is any reason to set foot in one since your check is handled electronically, loans and certificates of deposit can be had in the grocery store and the gas station gives you cash advances. To top it off, Intel of all places, is cutting back jobs as we speak.

You might smile at this, but it's a nervous smile isn't it? You know that you and I have been affected or are going to be affected by whatever is changing in business. Our expectation or paradigm of how the world is supposed to work seems not to fit the evidence of what we read in the papers or hear in the rumor mills at work. The certainty we may have felt in our careers isn't quite there anymore.

Charles Handy, one of the foremost writers on management and business in Great Britain, has a book you'll find worth reading. It's called "Beyond Certainty, The Changing Worlds of Organizations." It's a collection of his essays, some of which sparked his other books, "The Age of Unreason" and "The Age of Paradox." Just the titles seem to resonate with the almost chaotic events in our work lives.

What's different these days is that the fundamental structure of how businesses operate is changing for good. In the last century, the way we live and work was upset as most people moved off family farms and into factories. It was upset again when people moved out of factories and into offices. It's time now for the offices to vacate...but to what?

If Charles Handy is right, we'll be more and more on our own to figure out where the opportunities are and how we can capitalize on them. Most all companies will shrink to a core of key players who will hold the critical knowledge of the company and stick with it for long periods of time. They'll be supported by a larger group of professionals who will come and go as needed, perhaps on short term contracts or other temporary arrangements. Everything else will be subcontracted or "outsourced" to use the latest wording. The new thinking on productivity is "half the people paid twice as well producing three times as much."

If you think that's radical, consider that offices will become more like clubs where people come to meet when they need or want to but don't have permanent private spaces. Most work will be done in far-flung locations, some at home, some on-site with a customer, some on the road and some in smaller team centers. This will make more and more sense as we use computers and networks to do what we do all day.

Careers? They'll be built on portfolios of our best work, which we'll sell to the highest bidder for our skills at a given time. Many of us will spend the first third of our lives learning, the second third working, and the last third just living as we please. As long as the financials of all this work out, it might not be all that bad.

One thing to remember is that these thoughts are at best a trend, not an absolute. People still live on family farms, they still work in factories, they still follow their retiring parents into big offices. In fact, I was amused by a story in USA Today about the new "middle management boom." Yes, managers are now the hot prospects in the job market. Can you believe it? I should point out that what's being sought now are leaders, not dictators or gate-keepers, and certainly not career bureaucrats.


Also visit these related sites:

Management Theory of Charles Handy - Handy's four important cultures of modern business, courtesy of Business.com

Charles Handy, Guru - Life history and publications of Charles Handy, courtesy of The Economist.


Books of Interest:

Beyond Certainty: The Changing Worlds of Organizations by Charles Handy. His collection of 35 inspiring and insightful articles are right on target for the uncertain world of business and work today.


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