Good times make bad teachers.
When fortune rises, everything else—necessity nurturing invention, need creating urgency, instinct sustaining sustenance—falls, unless, of course, we are so well disciplined that we override these conditions. But honestly, how many are we? Thus, we naturally become comfortable, confident and complacent. This is usually not the time when the hands-on learning takes place, the learning that is central to our survival and advancement. However, when challenges arise, our survival and learning mechanisms kick in. Let’s apply this to the labor market.
In my professional life (after college) I have experienced eight recessions of varying severity, five as an employee and three as an independent coach. The last two (2007-09 and 2020) were, as we all painfully remember, the worst.
Looking back, everything I learned in the job market, I learned during a recession. Such as…
1. A New World. None of us know what the labor market will look like a year from now, let alone beyond. Anyone who claims to know is either making it up or really delusional. We can’t even say he’s lying because to lie you first have to know the truth, which we just agreed we won’t know until it comes out. One thing we do know, however, is that the labor market of the immediate future will be vastly different, perhaps unrecognizable, from that of today and will operate under a different set of rules. The lesson is not to fight them. Learn the new rules and master them, whatever they are.
2. Ready for anything. Therefore, preparation will be more valuable than expertise as the most important quality. Anyone who plans to be in the workforce for more than five years should enhance and update their credentials with diplomas, courses, workshops, or other professional development. There is no choice.
3. Get really good at something. Now that we agree that preparation trumps expertise, develop expertise in something anyway. We’re not talking about being good at something; we’re talking about being excellent at it. Irreplaceably brilliant, in fact. Then make sure you always follow the advice in point 2, anyway. “Change is the law of life,” said John Kennedy, “and those who look only to the past or the present are sure to miss the future.”
4. Networking. The American job market will never welcome the passive job seeker again. But understand this: the opposite of passive, in this case, is not active. It’s proactive. I’ve been saying this for two decades now, but it’s getting more and more set in stone every year. Targeting companies you’d like to work for and networking with them will account for over 90% of all job landings. But let’s be clear on one thing: if you only enter networking mode when you’re looking for a job, you might as well not bother. Remember: ABC – Always be connected.
5. How long will your career last, exactly? Whatever you think is the end of your career, think again. In my father’s generation, almost everyone retired at 65. In your generation, hardly anyone will. Unless Social Security eligibility is deliberately lowered (which is being discussed, but I wouldn’t bet on that), it will continue to rise. This, combined with the financial setbacks most people have suffered during this and previous recessions, adds up to an increased need to work longer. With more jobs becoming white collar (less physically taxing work), this will make it more doable, provided (of course) we don’t forget point 1 above. Plan accordingly, but don’t go into denial about it.
When I was a child, we had a cherry tree in our garden. I was going up there with an empty bag and coming down with a few pounds of cherries. You know what I learned from that? The sweetest fruit was always on the high branches and on the branches. It was hard work and risky, but the rewards were there.
It turns out that recessions and cherries are good teachers.