The Times They Are A-Changin’

What a difference a few years makes!  I recently found an article from 2008, when the big concern was how companies were going to find enough people to replace all the baby boomers who were just about to start retiring in massive amounts.  In “As Baby Boomers Retire”, William G. Schulz predicted that “the U.S. workforce will be shrinking from now until about 2050. Perhaps the biggest contributor will be the waves of retirements of people in the baby boom generation…”  Companies were focusing on capturing their knowledge, and how to hire and train large numbers of younger workers to replace them.

Fast-forward to 2011, when the Wall Street Journal reports that there are more than four million Americans ages 55 to 64 who want but can’t find full-time work, double the number from just 5 years earlier according to the US Department of Labor (Oldest Baby Boomers Face Jobs Bust).  In fact, in 2011 almost 2/3 of people ages 55 to 64 either had jobs or wanted them. While Schulz may have been right about the size of the US work force shrinking, it has not been due to voluntary retirement of baby boomers, leaving vast numbers of openings for younger workers.

Instead, what we’re seeing now are people who don’t want to retire, because they aren’t sure their savings will last the rest of their lives.  They may want to work fewer hours, or at a less stressful job, but they are not ready to completely step out of the work force.  Many of them move into and out of the work force, as opportunities arise and their personal situation permits.

At the other end of the spectrum, we’re also now seeing younger workers changing jobs more frequently than in the past. In 2010, the average job tenure for people ages 25 to 34 was 3.1 years (BLS data).  While specific reasons were not reported, anecdotal evidence suggests younger people move to positions with increased responsibility or as temporary placements end.

While being aware of trends such as these is important, knowing what they mean and applying that information to your personal career path is even more important.  While it’s interesting if one person says something is going to happen, it’s noteworthy when two independent people say it, and after the third or fourth time you’d better start figuring out how it’s going to affect your career trajectory.

What the trends described above tell me is that changing jobs, or even changing careers, is something that everyone should expect and be prepared for, at all stages of life.  You never know when a great opportunity will arise, or when circumstances will force you to make a change.

This means not only having a current version of your resume, but knowing what you can do, and where you want to go in your professional life.  You are more likely to find an opportunity if you know what you’re looking for, and are even more likely to find it if you share that information with your colleagues and friends so they can be on the lookout as well.

While you need to be aware of trends, and temper your career aspirations with reality, you don’t want to go too far the other way and plan your entire future based on predictions.

I often have students ask me what major has the highest starting salary or what careers are going to be in demand in a few years, so they can tailor their studies to that area.  But as we’ve seen, those predictions are often wrong, meaning those students sometimes spend years studying something they don’t like, only to find out that by the time they graduate no one wants to pay them to do that anyway.  And since they don’t enjoy it, they don’t put forth their best effort, and end up very unhappy.

While I’m not suggesting you ignore the market forces and pursue a position chasing your passion of manufacturing a specific widget, at the other extreme you should not chase popularity without consideration for what makes you happy.  Paying attention to marketplace trends, and deciding how you are going to respond to them, gives you power over your future.  Simply refusing to acknowledge that the world is changing will not make it stop.

Not all of us like change, but we all have to live with it.  Change can bring new opportunity, and let you see old things in a new light.  Learn how to see the opportunities in change – if people are now working longer, can your company’s products be adapted to appeal to this aging population?  Since employees are changing jobs more frequently, can you learn about new opportunities when your friends move companies?

The only thing that is constant is change, so you might as well get used to it – and use it to your advantage.

This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants LLC.  Lisa is a technical writer/editor and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists,” published by Oxford University Press.

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