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Career Self-management Is the First Step in the Shift to a Jobless Society

April 1, 1994
William Bridges, author of the book Job Shift, which will be released by Addison Wesley Publishing in September, believes that the United States is on its way to becoming a jobless society. "What's really disappearing isn't a certain number of jobs, or jobs in certain industries, or even U.S. jobs," he says. "What is disappearing is the job itself." He believes that encouraging career self-management is a vital first step in preparing Americans to accept their new relationship to the world of work.

Can you explain your theory about jobs going by the wayside?
In the faster-moving parts of our economy—especially the electronics sector—job descriptions are disappearing and so is the chain of command. Project teams are created to do specific tasks and then disbanded. People may work on more than one team at a time, hours are irregular and the only thing that really matters is the results.

Jobs were the way you packaged work in repetitive situations in which responsibilities were narrowly and rigidly defined. But when the market changes so fast—as it is now—the job gets in the way. Wherever the job dominates people's thinking, people don't work at what needs doing; they "do their jobs."

How will career self-management change this way of thinking?
Well, when the job world was in full flower, we not only had jobs, we had strings of jobs that naturally went together. If a person started at one end of the string it was simply a matter of doing a good job and progressing along the string. As long as that was the case, the whole notion of career development had more to do with getting people who started in the wrong place back on the right track. Career development was like finding round holes for the round pegs.

The reason I say career self-management is a first step on the way to a jobless society isn't just because there are fewer opportunities, but also because the job matrix and the way jobs hold together have broken down. No matter how good you are, there's no longer any guarantee you'll be able to move inside that matrix. In today's workplace, there's a lot of work that needs doing, and not all of it is packaged in the form of jobs. The real opportunities exist outside the job matrix rather than inside. It's up to the employee to seek out—and create—those opportunities, because in many cases their employers don't even know what they are.

How realistic is it to assume employees will take on this responsibility, especially because they're still hired to do carefully defined jobs?
It will be tough, because in most organizations there's still a job matrix, although it's mighty flimsy. There are still job descriptions and managers do end-of-the-year performance appraisals based on those job descriptions. The frustration is that employees are being told to do all sorts of things that fall outside their job descriptions. When this happens, the job matrix gets damaged.

There are two dissonant realities at the moment: One is that the rhetoric of jobs is still in place; the other is that employers are asking workers to do the work that needs to be done. In other words, people are being held accountable for things that are part of the old job structure, but they also are being expected to do things that aren't part of the old job structure. It's an awkward, uncomfortable stage we are in right now. Employees aren't sure how to proceed.

What responsibility do employers have in encouraging career self-management for employees?
Employers need to think through these changing work arrangements and take some responsibility for helping employees come to terms with them. The business of employee motivation is going to depend on how comfortable people are working in less defined, more fluid environments. We have to get them used to dealing in permanent white water, and the way to do that is to put them in charge of their own career decisions.

It's crazy for companies not to have a strategy for helping employees understand this responsibility, especially when people were never expected to manage their careers in the first place. Employees won't perform successfully with old ideas about work in their heads, and their companies won't be competitive as a result. Pure self-interest is the reason employers should get involved.

Personnel Journal, April 1994, Vol.73, No. 4, p. 64M.