A blog about the new generation of work


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‘There is no golden ticket’ and other scary ideas Generation Y must confront in the recession

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The Toronto Star’s front page was all about Generation Y this past Saturday with the playfully titled “Generation Why Me?”

Basically, it’s about how everyone in their 20s is screwed.

First, we meet Angelika and Lucasz:

Angelika, 26, was full time on the door line at Chrysler, where her parents still work. Lucasz, 27, made moulds as a machine operator, a skill he learned from his father, who still works in the trade.

They were planning to have children. Then, in March 2008, Angelika was laid off. Lucasz lost his job a month later. That set off a chain of events that still has not ended.

Those circumstances suck, sure – though I question whether someone who worked for Chrysler has the right to be at all surprised that he or she lost her job — but are kind of typical for a recession. These are the kind of things we need to look out for.

In fact, if I were to make like every other blogger and write a big list of RECESSION-BUSTING TIPS they’d really be little more than:

  1. Don’t buy things you can’t afford
  2. Don’t buy a house unless you’ve done some research and can afford it
  3. Especially don’t buy a house in a new development in a suburb, you moron — it will be worth nothing exactly five minutes after you move in
  4. Do everything you can to make yourself irreplaceable at your workplace
  5. Seriously, you want to have kids? Right now? You’re young! Why don’t you wait a few years?

It’s not complicated. If you’ve come into things with only student debt – without a house, kids, two cars, a boat, a buddy in Nigeria you’re helping secure a family fortune, etc. — you’re likely going to be able to ride this out.

After the section on Angelika and Lucasz, however, the article takes an interesting detour:

It crashed down for Huda Assaqqaf, 24, too.

Assaqqaf believed university would bring a stable career. Armed with a food and nutrition degree from Ryerson, she embarked on a job search in 2007 that has yielded nothing but frustration and contract jobs, none of them in her field.

She now works part-time for Access Apartments, co-ordinating personal support workers for people with physical disabilities. “For an office job, it’s not very bad.”

Now, without reading too much into this, am I crazy or does that actually sound like a pretty good job for a 24-year-old to have?

The article disagrees, saying that “this is not what was promised … Generation Y grew up being told that if they were willing to work and study hard they could have it all: well-paying, fulfilling jobs that provided all the comforts.”

This, I guess, is the entitlement thing we as a generation always get charged with. Critics say that we’re whiny and that we expect too much.

But that’s both a simplification and a generalization – it implies there’s some kind of personality defect that’s infected everybody in their 20s, making them ultra demanding and particular when it comes to their career.

For those who truly fit into the ‘entitlement’ mold and get all grumpy that they’re not working their dream job five minutes after graduation, I have little sympathy. First, you went to university, not a vocational school – you were meant to develop broad thinking skills, not on-the-job training. Second, would you really be so contented with such a linear life? Where’s your sense of possibility? Where’s your sense of adventure?

Reading between the lines of the article in The Star reveals something else, however – something that I think is more interesting and, indeed, more universal: the Generation Ys coming out of post-secondary right now are products of a machine that doesn’t quite work right.

It’s not that Generation Ys feel entitled to great jobs right out-of-the-gate, it’s that they are told – often and repeatedly and with great vigor – that they ARE entitled to great jobs. Because they’re getting this credential – this degree, this diploma, this golden ticket – they’re set for life. Our educational institutions like to believe they’re like factories: pumping out smart, professional kids, ready to jump right into employment.

Schools have been foisting this on students – and their parents – for years, and it’s only now that it’s catching up to reality.

And, honestly, that’s a good thing. Credentialism is a dangerous idea. Sure, lazy hiring managers love it, but inevitably it leads to empty suits with MBAs getting CEO positions at failing companies while drop-outs run successful businesses like Microsoft and Apple. It’s a sad and boring world where degrees and diplomas are valued more than skills and performance; let’s try not to live in it.

So what about the twenty-somethings in the article? Some of them are facing some crappy luck. Others, seemingly, are doing pretty well for their first job right out of university. Jobs that don’t directly relate to our field-of-interest, contract work, internships, volunteer positions, depressing stints at retail: these are all valuable things that can add to your skillset and bring you closer to your goal.

Don’t let anybody tell you that you’re doing badly because you’re not a homeowner with kids and a steady union job by the time you’re 30 – that’s not the world we live in, and no one should make you feel entitled to that.

Note: This post was featured on BrazenCareerist.com where it sparked an interesting discussion. Check it out here.

Photo by witheyes.

Five Observations on Telecommuting

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I’ve been telecommuting frequently for about a year and a half now. Some weeks I’ll do only one or two days at home, and the rest at the office. Other times, I’ll spend very few days in the office. There’s no fixed schedule and it depends on things like meetings and events. For the most part, it’s an arrangement that has worked extremely well.

My commute is roughly 50 kilometres – a little more than 30 miles – which is, looking at averages, not out-of-line with a lot of other people who do drive in to work every day. If I got into the habit of slogging through it every day I’d probably adjust and get used to it. It would just become part of my life. Like so many others, I’d spend two hours of my life on the highway every day.

But I made a promise to myself that I would never do that. If I was in another field – something that required the use of specialized equipment or demanded person-to-person interaction every day – maybe I would do it. But my job generally involves little more than me in front of a computer answering email, writing documents and creating concepts.

I challenge anyone to logically explain why that kind of work – the kind of work that millions upon millions of people do every day – would ever require people to drive to some arbitrary building every day.

So I won’t do it.1

Telecommuting, like any other mode of working, presents its own unique set of challenges. Over the past 18 months I’ve developed a pretty good groove, but there were definitely obstacles to overcome. As a service to all those who telecommute, manager telecommuters or who are considering giving it a try, here’s a quick list of five things I’ve observed while working at home.

1. People will think you’re ‘cheating’

It doesn’t matter how productive you feel you’re being at home, there will inevitably be people in your workplace who think you’re somehow ‘cheating’ by working-at-home. Often they’ll make subtly snide comments, insinuating that you’re not working, that you’re sleeping in, watching TV or getting household chores done. The under-the-skin message seems to be that if you were REALLY committed to work, you’d be AT work.

Combatting this is hard. When I started, I used to be so aware of this kind of attitude that I’d specifically send emails to people before the start of work hours (so people knew I was awake) and would literally dive to make sure I answered my phone on the first ring. The goal was to let no one think I was doing anything BUT working.

2. You’ll work longer hours than you would otherwise

In an office, the people around you kind of set the tone for your day. If they’re working, you’re working. If they’re by the water cooler chatting, then maybe you’ll join them. When lunch comes, you eat because everyone else is eating. When people start to pack up for the day, so do you. It’s very much a herd mentality, and it’s effective in setting an underlying schedule to your work day.

At home, there’s nobody but you. Instead of having a quick chat with your co-workers first thing, you’re diving right into email and projects. And why would you stop for an hour at lunch? Might as well keep going as you’re eating your sandwich. There’s nothing to break up the day.

My biggest bad habit lately is pushing certain items into the evening. I’ve started setting aside 11 p.m. to midnight as a ‘work hour’ and using it to do things. Often I like this strategy – no one’s emailing or calling during that hour, so I can focus and complete work faster than I would otherwise. The downside is when I end up accidentally working to 1 a.m. and then need to get up the next morning.

3. People will get jealous

This one is hard, especially if your workplace doesn’t have any kind of ‘telecommuting policy’2 – inevitably co-workers will start to quietly resent that they’re in the office every day and you’re not. They’ll start wondering why they can’t work at home too.

Of course, there are lots of reasons why someone wouldn’t be able to work at home. Maybe they’re a receptionist. Maybe they’re a teachers. Maybe they’re a firefighter. These are not long-distance jobs. Maybe their manager hasn’t developed enough trust with that employee yet. Maybe the manager just flat out DOESN’T trust that employee because they’re irresponsible. Maybe the manager is an old-school jerk who defines ‘management’ as walking around catching glimpses of employee computer screens. Maybe the employee just hasn’t asked yet.

Whatever the case, it’s not your fault. Don’t dwell on this one.

4. It helps to be a computer nerd.

If you’re considering telecommuting, it’s important that you don’t become the telecommuter that everyone hates. The one that’s always calling in every 20 minutes asking if someone can email them a file they need to work on. Or that you’ve forgotten your VPN password again. Or that your laptop is just sooo slow. Or that your Bonzi Buddy isn’t dancing as well as he used to.

Cardinal rule of telecommuting: your doing it cannot create MORE work for people in the office. You need to make it effortless for all your co-workers, which means knowing how to troubleshoot your own networking problems, shelling out for a faster home internet connection if you need to and making damn sure you have access to the files you need to get your work done. Being a tech nerd is absolutely an asset.

5. You’ll feel left out sometimes

Even though I’m a bit of an abolitionist when it comes to the traditional office, I can’t deny that offices – when they’re staffed with good people who like each other (and isn’t that always the dream?) – can lead to great camaraderie. Even friendship. And no matter what kind of allowances you try to make for yourself as a telecommuter, the very act of removing yourself from the office on some days is alienating. Suddenly you’re not there for the hilarious thing that happened at lunch yesterday. Or for so-and-so’s birthday cake. You miss out on the moments, both large and small. And that kind of sucks.

So, is telecommuting worth it?

Is it worth it? Again, that depends on the kind of person you are, and the kind of office you work at. For me, it was worth it – without this arrangement I’m not sure I’d have stuck with the job as long as I have. And I’ve definitely learned how to mitigate the negatives and focus on the positive: the stuff that makes the work I do fun.

The take-away? Don’t be knee-jerk about telecommuting. Just because one person can’t do it doesn’t mean everyone can’t. As we move forward into this crazy new generation of mine, recession-addled as we are at the moment, the managers who success will be the ones who stop obsessing about the modes of work and instead direct their energies toward quality outcomes delivered on time.

Photo by langui. Licensed under Creative Commons

  1. It was a lot easier to make sweeping, declarative statements like this when the job market was better and unemployment wasn’t at 1-in-10 people, but screw it – we must not sacrifice career principles just because the stock market is slumping hard. []
  2. And I’m not sure your workplace should have a telecommuting policy. Every person is unique and has a different work style – stop pretending otherwise. []

Sorry but I might just twitter during your presentation

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Twitter, the micro-blogging service that sounds stupid until you use it, is hitting the mainstream, with all sorts of celebrities and politicians piling on. (See also my big Twitter at Work post.)

The celebrities are amusing but benign. The politicians are more interesting, but already their twittering is causing controversy. They’re being accused of not paying attention.

The Globe & Mail reports:

Edmonton — Alberta’s Speaker of the House Ken Kowalski issued a stern warning to provincial politicians yesterday to stop using their BlackBerrys during Question Period.

“There’s something going on in virtual wonderland called Twitter-ing. And it seems that even as the Question Period goes on, some honourable members have been accessing their BlackBerrys to put some messages in the virtual world before the question is even answered by another person,” he said.

Some notes on this.

  • Question Period, for those who aren’t lucky enough to live in a Parliamentary democracy, is the time when politicians are allowed to yell at each other (including the Prime Minister) with tremendous vigor.
  • “Virtual wonderland?” Is that connected to the series of tubes?
  • How many decades will we have to wait before the majority of our elected leaders across the globe actually understand the most important innovation since the internal combustion engine?

Regardless, there’s some wisdom in the Speaker of the House’s words, at least as it pertains to Question Period — it’s good practice to at least wait until you get an answer before you start flinging crap into the virtual wonderland.

The article continues:

It’s not the first time he’s made the request in an attempt to restore decorum. Mr. Kowalski recently sent letters to MLAs asking them to refrain from using any electronic devices, including laptop computers, in the legislature.

This is where I start getting more annoyed. There’s something inherently backwards about this sort of “no technology” policy1 that starts to push my Generation Y buttons. Why the anti-technology bias?

A Quick Story

A couple of years ago, I was sitting in an all-day workshop held in an auditorium with theatre-style seating. The content was actually really good. I was into it.

Midway through the afternoon, I was joined by someone who was kind of my boss. I didn’t directly report to him, but he certainly could have gotten me fired if he wanted to. That kind of boss.

We sat for a while and listened to a keynote. Part-way through, I realized I had no idea what time it was. I don’t wear a watch, so I pulled out my cellphone from my pocket to check. My pseudo-boss looked at me with a gigantic look of disapproval, tapped the phone, and literally wagged a finger.

I had a similar experience this past year at another conference, when I brought out my iPhone, opened the “Notes” application, and typed a couple of points I wanted to remember. The lady next to me looked at me like I had just wronged her personally.

That’s the anti-technology bias in a nutshell. It’s the belief that this device in your hand means you’re not paying attention. That you’re being disrespectful. That you’re just a big insensitive jerk.

Why We Twitter

The notion that people in the audience using twitter (or blogging) during presentations is quickly shot down by the amazing benefits that liveblogging or an active ‘backchannel’ brings to conferences, workshops and other events. These kinds of communications bring the content and messages of a small, in-person event to a much larger audience online. Everyone benefits.

Web people, marketers, anyone at Unconference or ‘camp’ suffixed events already understand this: an audience twittering or typing away as you talk is generally a good thing. It means you’re saying something that people want to share. Hopefully it’s something smart.

The anti-tech bias is motivated by two forces. The first is the belief that technology is inherently distracting and there is no way for people to overcome that. The second is the really weird belief that this is one instance where multitasking is impossible. Neither of these things are true.

The benefits to increased real-time communication through twitter and other web-based means are innumerable. There are THOUSANDS of them for business and for government alone. We should not sacrifice these in favour of some outdated notion of proper manners.

Caveat

I have some misgivings about writing all of this, if only because I’ve been annoyed by people using their Blackberries under tables at conferences, checking their email every two minutes. There’s often a look about them that seems disengaged. Despite all I’ve said, I still find that rude.

There is a balance, I believe, that must be struck. We owe it to ourselves to be responsible users of technology, and that includes using common sense. Twittering “In a great presentation on Google Adwords – what’s your ideal CPM?” is great. Composing an email to your mom about the new car you bought is bad.

The biggest worry, I suppose, is that the technology is almost invisible. When someone takes notes, at least you can sort of see that they’re writing. A computer or especially a smart phone gives a kind of anonymity to your activities. There’s no real visual evidence that you’re not just screwing around.

But I really think that’s something we’re just going to have to get past. The anti-tech bias must die.

Photo by Julian Bleecker. Licensed under Creative Commons

  1. or attempted policy, to be fair []

Similar Posts:November 2, 2008: Twitter’s place at work + March 23, 2008: Opposing organization + March 23, 2008: Five Rules for PowerPoint Presentations That Don’t Suck + more...

Graduating this year? Three mistakes to avoid

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Update: This post was featured on Brazen Careerist, where it got a bunch of really interesting comments. Check it out.

There’s a recession all over the world. Which is nice, because I like it when we all have something in common. I’ve written about the recession a few times. I’ll write about it some more. Much like the Jonas Brothers or skinny jeans, it won’t last forever, but it’s definitely not going away for a while. So we’ve got to learn to cope.

Like any recession, there’s a lot of hype these days. Newspapers, maybe because they’re shedding jobs faster than everyone else, are banging a ceaseless drum about this presumed fiscal apocalypse. And yes, it sucks, and yes, it will suck for at least another couple of years, but it’s important for members of Generation Y not to take all this doom-and-gloom rhetoric and make bad choices in the short-term that could seriously screw with their long-term career goals.

It’s critical that young people, in the face of the specter of soup lines and cardboard houses, not give in to hype-driven impulsiveness and make mistakes. Don’t panic.

No one’s in greater danger of this than those who are looking at graduating college or university this spring. When I graduated in 2006, I was looking forward to it — there was something exciting about stepping out into the world. Now, it’s a little bit like walking The Green Mile.

Take this article from the Kansas City Star: The perils of graduating college in 2009:

With so many experienced people out of work, how is a new grad supposed to compete? Many companies prefer to hire someone who is tested and knowledgeable in their industry rather than taking a flyer on a new kid. And those laid off folks are desperate too, often willing to take significantly lower salaries to land a gig.

Columnist Michael Stahl is right, of course, in that you’d have to either be a supergenius or an incredible moron to expect lucrative employment right out of college these days. But, again, I have to emphasize how important the ‘not panicking’ part of this is. I’m hearing about a lot of grads who are making really dumb decisions in light of the economy.

Here are three big career mistakes you should avoid right now, no matter how safe and secure – and even sensible – they might sound:

1. Don’t go to grad school

Look, I’ve got nothing against graduate school in theory. And, by all means, if you’re the kind of person who legitimately loves learning and being in academia — if you could see yourself spending your life tangled up in it — than grad school could absolutely be the right path for you.

But don’t do grad school because you have some misguided notion that it’s going to magically help your employment prospects. Penelope Trunk already covered this pretty well::

Applications to the military increase in a bad economy in a disturbingly similar way that applications to graduate school do. For the most part, both alternatives are bad. They limit your future in ways you can’t even imagine, and they are not likely to open the kind of doors you really want. Military is the terrible escape hatch for poor kids, and grad school is the terrible escape hatch for rich kids.

Even short grad school programs (One or two years) tend to offer little more than lipstick on a pig. If you don’t have the drive toward academia – and especially if you’re considering paying for grad school through student loans that will bury you into your forties — all you’re doing is avoiding reality.

2. Don’t become a teacher

One of my big anger-triggers these days is the seemingly widespread belief that teaching is a universally-palatable career choice that pretty much ANYONE with a BA can get into, be good at, and secure sustained employment. It’s not, it shouldn’t be, and trying to push the teaching profession down that road will undoubtedly screw with the education of young people for years to come.

Ignoring the fact that teaching is an incredible important occupation that should be the domain of our best and brightest, teaching isn’t even really all that stable these days. It made all sorts of sense when birth rates were high all over, but demographics are changing. Teachers are facing layoffs all over because there are a glut of teachers and not that many students.

I have a BA in History. I know that a lot of BAs get fed crap about how teaching (or grad/law school) is the only career option out there for them. But that’s not true. Just because your pathway isn’t lit up for you with guide lights doesn’t mean it’s not there.

3. Don’t base everything on statistics

There is, and there has always been, a lot of merit to looking at statistics before launching yourself toward a certain career. Researching your employment sector, looking at employment trends and average salaries — these are smart things to do.

But the danger here is in putting too much weight on the stats. The stats will say, for example, that you’re far better off going into structural engineering than, say, journalism. Many orders of magnitude better off. The difference between those two career paths is literally hundreds of thousands of dollars.

But if you have no desire to be a structural engineer — and your whole life you’ve wanted to be in journalism — none of that will matter. Life is always easier when you have a ton of money in the bank and you’re not living off Ramen noodles, but it’s not necessarily always better.

Giving up on your passions is absolutely the biggest mistake you can make in this economic climate. Not only because it’ll probably make you miserable, but also because that which you’re passionate about tends to be what you’re good at. It sounds a bit cliché and kind of like something the Care Bears would chant, but I believe it: your talent follows your passion.

Accentuating the Negative

I know, I know — I’ve only told you what NOT to do, and not given you any kind of advice on what TO do. But that’s kind of the point. The current job market demands patience. The only proactive advice I can really give at this point is to be vigilant. And to get a job — any job you can — that will provide you experience and the money you need to get by.

The best thing you can do for yourself right now is NOT screw up. You don’t have kids, a mortgage, imminent retirement plans or other major liabilities. You’ve got patience that others won’t have. And time will reward Generation Y for that.

Photo by Jim Linwood. Licensed under Creative Commons

Need a résumé-building skill? Learn to write

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Hey, have you heard? There might be a recession! Maybe even a depression!. And as much fun as that kind of thing might be for those who miss the convenience of the bindle and loved old silent films where men in ratty suits cut up old boots for supper, for the 3.6 million people who have lost their jobs in the last few months, things kind of suck right now.

I’ve written one or two things about the recession on this site already, but for those of you just tuning in, here’s the short version of my feelings on the economy, Generation Y, and the perilous future we face: It will be bad for a while. Maybe a long while. Gen Y is in the best position long-term, because we’re not exactly too concerned about losing our retirement savings. The best strategy is to think long-term, and be patient. (Failing that, just go hide for a couple of years in grad school. You’ll be fine!)

So that’s the recession. And hopefully you’re nodding along at this point. But those sorts of macro-level thoughts and long-term generalizations are only one side of the coin. The other side is simpler, and more personal. It’s got to do with young people who are facing an imminent graduation date and, while maybe they’re not thinking about dashed retirement dreams of foreclosed yachts, would still really like to have a job in the next few months. Because they really don’t want to have to go back to living with their parents.

But how do you get a job when the economy sucks? You make yourself exceptional. Now, more than ever, you’re only going to get your foot in the door if you can offer something that very few others can. There are literally thousands of skills you could develop and highlight towards this end, but there’s one giant ability that I think stands out above the rest: writing.

It seems simple — almost trivial — but there are very few occupations that don’t benefit from strong writing abilities these days. Think of how many emails are sent a day. Think of how much time is wasted by people who can’t string a coherent sentence together within those emails and thus cause titanic communication headaches. Think of how things are moving online — to blogs, to wikis, to twitter — to an internet that is still (and, I think, will always be) predominantly comprised of text. Of written communication.

And the great thing — from this perspective, anyway — about the job market right now is that very few people can write. There are lots of people who think they can write just fine. They probably put “Strong Verbal and Written Communication Skills” on their “résumé” and everything. But odds are they’re either abbreviation-abusing hunt-and-peck typists who respond to emails with single sentences that make no sense but are in a stupid font like neon green Comic Sans or they’re academia-clinging malcontents who write run-on sentences that use buzz words incorrectly due to the value-added paradigm that existing vertical touches base with vis a vis existing synergy or whatever.

You can be different. You can be better. Being among the effective written communicators in your office isn’t likely to win you a ton of overt recognition or anything, but it is something that will inevitably be noticed. It’s the kind of skill that has obvious application outside of whatever you were hired to do, and that is actually notoriously hard to find in applicants.

So how do you learn to write? You just do it. You write. The internet has given you an incredible platform filled with people who will read and respond and help you get better. It’s a wonderful tool that will help you get better every time your keys hit the keyboard. Embrace that.

And don’t be embarrassed. We’re all still learning.

Photo by soartsithurts. Licensed under Creative Commons

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