the myth of stable employment

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My father was a college professor for the same university his entire career. My mother, although switching schools several times, has had pension-laden and tenure-secured positions at public schools for decades. All of my grandparents worked for the government in one form or another other than my father’s father. All of them held jobs that were stable. They never expected to be laid off. They never anticipated being a casualty of a shortfall in a quarterly stock price target. They never expected to be part of a failing institution. They thought they had – and did have – stable employment.

I ask myself a question before my first day at every new client: how many days will it be before someone asks me if I’m scared of the lack of stability as a consultant – or some variation of the question:

“Don’t you want a stable job?”

“Aren’t you worried you might not find a client after this contract?”

… and so on. It’s usually followed, a month or two later, with a question about whether I’d like to come on board as an employee. I’d have a “regular paycheck.” I’d have a limited choice of expensive benefits. I might get promoted. I’d be part of a team.

To these statements, I reply:

  • Regular paycheck? Right now, my paycheck is irregular because if I work 55 hours instead of 40, I get paid overtime. If I get that regular paycheck, I get paid 40 all the time – and there’s an incentive for my boss to MAKE me work those 15 free hours.”
  • Benefits? I get benefits. Fifteen years ago, I didn’t pay for health care, I had a huge 401(k) match, two weeks of vacation as a lowly staff member and even had a vestigal pension. Today, most companies’ benefits are only marginally better than my own. A 401(k) with no match is WORSE than an IRA because of the 401(k)’s fees. Most employees pick up 50% of their health care premiums, but don’t give a choice about coverage. And pensions? Hehehe.”
  • I might get promoted, be part of a team? Swell. That means I have to get out my rusty corporate back-stabbing knives. I have yet to see the corporate organization where you can put your head down, work well with your staff, deliver results to your manager and move up the totem pole. You have to play politics. You can play politics with a smile or with a frown, but if you don’t play them, you’ll hit a ceiling.”

But after I run through all of these objections, the client uses what – to the corporate mind – is the trump card:

But it’s a STABLE JOB!”

Somehow that’s the final and best stuttered argument in favor of employment. It’s a myth that continues from previous generations.

It’s not true anymore.

I always ask people whether they expect to be working for the same company in five years. Do they expect to work in the same organization – no mergers, no layoffs, no new bosses with their own teams forcing them out, no acquisitions forcing them to move to the other coast? Really? Let alone the possibility that they may just get sick of the job on their own, or find a better one, and quit.

Without exception, employees stop and think for a second. With a nervous laugh, they may claim sure, they’ll be there in five years. But that hesitation and that laugh tell the truth: they won’t. Nobody will.
Of course you know the lifer: someone who’s hung on like grim death. My wife, Bubelah, knew someone like this at her last job. This person was not leaving. She would change departments, move cities, do anything to stay at her corporate job. I’ve known people like this, too: they’d do anything – accept demotions, move their families at short notice, take pay cuts, ANYthing – to keep their job.

If that’s stability, I don’t want it.

The recession has made “stability” the hot term, even while it’s harder to obtain than ever (and less certain even when it is obtained). Stability will never again be a perk an employer can offer. I know someone is thinking about the federal government, or teaching, or union jobs or some other exception. If there is an exception, the days they’ll offer stability are numbered. The work of the future will be unstable. Accept it, adjust your career to fit it and move on.

And by the way, don’t kid yourself – there is no stability in being an entrepreneur, either. If you are a small business owner, and you have all your eggs in that basket, it’s not a stable setup. An entrepreneur’s life may be more challenging, or more personally or financially rewarding, but it’s far from stable.

Stability is a thing of the past in the work world. The only stability is the creation of multiple streams of income, elimination of personal debt and spending less than you earn, while always thinking of ways to earn more than you spend. You have to build income streams whenever you can; nothing else can guarantee stability. Stable income is something that, in the past, your employer gave you.

Today, it’s something you build.

—-

And just in case you wonder, at my current client, I had this conversation not in a matter of days… but the first day.

photo by Cold Cut

45 comments

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  • writerscoin

    I struggle with this question all the time, only to me a “stable job” is something I can rely on for the near future. To me, not knowing what I might be doing in a few months is stressful. I can't deal with it.

    I see your point, though, but I think people like me realize “stability” is still a precarious thing. Who knows, if I lost my job I might learn the hard way that being an entrepreneur or a consultant is something I could pull off.

    For now, it's just too scary for me.

  • Interesting post and a topic near to my heart. I had similar conversations during my time as a contract workerbee, but in the end the marketing killed my drive to be an entrepreneur. I still think about it frequently though. Perhaps an interesting post or series would be a how-to about selling yourself as a contract worker.

    • @Carrie: True, marketing is a tough challenge for an entrepreneur. I
      am not a marketer, certainly. And thanks for the great post idea – I am
      working on it already!

  • chadsentientmoney

    Fear and passiveness allow the masses to be molded as the decision makers see fit. If everyone wasn't afraid of losing their “stable” jobs they would stand up more often to the poor treatment most corporations slop onto their employees.

  • I fight this battle all the time as a recruiter. We do contracts, contract-to-hire, and direct placement. You hear “but I want full time employment!” all the time. Even after giving them examples of big companies laying off people from “stable” jobs they usually aren't swayed.

    • @NoDebtPlan: I know that most recruiters tend to be taken aback when I tell them I prefer contract work – it's not the usual response you guys get, I'd imagine. I've also found that most people leave a terrible corporate position and expect the next – at an identical, large, faceless corporation – to be better, beyond all reason….

    • @NoDebtPlan: I know that most recruiters tend to be taken aback when I
      tell them I prefer contract work – it's not the usual response you guys
      get, I'd imagine. I've also found that most people leave a terrible
      corporate position and expect the next – at an identical, large,
      faceless corporation – to be better, beyond all reason….

    • @NoDebtPlan: I know that most recruiters tend to be taken aback when I
      tell them I prefer contract work – it's not the usual response you guys
      get, I'd imagine. I've also found that most people leave a terrible
      corporate position and expect the next – at an identical, large,
      faceless corporation – to be better, beyond all reason….

  • bloggingbanks

    That's an interesting point that you mention. My only problem with multiple streams of income is that you still have to make sure that those are geographically diversified. For example If I worked at a bank, got side income by doing bank bonus offers from time to time and I also held bank stocks for their high dividends.

    One year later most bank employees are facing worse job security than before, bank stocks have cut dividends and prices are super low. If you had invested money in real-estate in an area hit hard by the financial crisis your other source of income would be anihilated as well

    • It's not exactly diversification if everything you do somehow related to banks or to one industry only.

    • bloggingbanks

      Yes, that was exactly my point bubelah. :-). I guess I should have better explained my comment.

  • Well said. Now can you please excoriate all those blog posts about how to “recession proof” your job?!!!

    There are no stable jobs in the dictionary sense of the word and the sooner people realize it, the sooner we can move on. A stable job? Hah — you're just one big screw up from having to find another job. You're just one political move by your boss from having to find another job. You're just one merger from having to find another job. You're just one called loan from losing your job as an entrepreneur.

    Several years ago, I worked for my state's largest privately held company in my industry. We were a powerhouse and as the head buyer, I had a fabulous job. Authority to match my responsibility. Fun. Challenging. Fast paced. Financially rewarding — very rewarding. Wined and dined by every rep in the region. Free season tickets to the box behind home plate for the MLB team down the road. Tickets to attend the PGA Tour Championship At East Lake in Atlanta with two nights with my wife in the Ritz Carlton. Limos, dinners at the posh restaurants, you name it. It was great.

    Then – we were shut down in one week when the bank's auditor discovered that the owner was extending credit to less than credit worthy customers. The owner was an entrepreneur, his penchant was the “sale.” The details would get worked out later, and I had to tell 142 people that we no longer had a job.

    Stable job? Yeah, right.

    I landed on my feet though and started my own company. Later I sold my shares to my partners and went to work for a corporate behemoth again. Don't ask why. I have no idea. But I AM building income streams like you said.

    • @Ron: That's a great cautionary for anybody who's at the “top of their
      game” and feels that there's no way it could happen to them. Things can
      change in a hurry, as your story demonstrates. But your story shows
      that you CAN land on your feet again, which is important for people to
      realize too – that unstable job will disappear, but you can rebuild as
      long as you have the emergency funds and drive to move on. Great comment!

  • My husband is in the Army and I would have to say that his job is very stable.

    • @Shannon: The Army's definitely not laying anybody off these days,
      that's for sure.

    • Well, someone I know was “separated” they call it?? from the Army? In other words she was let go, laid off, fired… Army is going through recession too and they have budgetary problems too. So, if they find even slightest fault with anybody's conduct they will discharge them. Our nanny is an army wife and she explained these things to me.

    • Really? My husband is retired Army and my son is in the Army. son in law is a Marine. We live next to a post and I teach in a 'primarily army' school. People begging to get out. No one being laid off. This is not the early '90's. The budget cuts will come. Right now they are in the civilian side of the Army. You have to be a major bad boy to get kicked right now! Pretty darn stable. IN fact they are signing people on for way more years than an 18 year old should be allowed to commit to!

    • Separation is almost always a voluntary act on the part of the soldier. For example, I separated after 6 years, simply because I didn't want to be in the military any more.

      There is an “up or out” philosophy that if you don't get promoted after several attempts, there is no longer a position for you, but that is somewhat rare. And you don't have to reach too high a grade to be able to stay in long enough to take retirement. And, of course, if you get into legal trouble (whether civilian laws or the Uniform Military Code of Justice), you can be discharged (or sent to prison and then discharged).

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  • maneeshbhati

    It's not exactly diversification if everything you do somehow related to banks or to one industry only.

  • If you have a “stable job” and you lose it, you have few options. If you're a freelancer, building your own name, you can find more work if your contract isn't renewed because you have options.

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  • Good post. I think the lack of stability is the real reason why the home-as-investment idea is a myth. In the old days, you could put your head down and expect a certain salary increase, thereby justifying the 30-year mortgage. Nowadays, there is a good chance you will be laid-off or get a pay cut (and if you're laid off in your 40s, most likely you will end up with a lower-paying job).

    This may be a bit of a sidetrack but I think that this lack of stability is all the more reason for universal healthcare. It will benefit most people, including consultants, entrepreneurs, freelancers and the many people who have 'stable' jobs without health insurance benefits. There are many arguments, pro and con, but I have experienced far too many problems with insurers (denial of legitimate claims that I ultimately fought for and won) to believe in a private system that puts profit first.

    • @wf: Don't get me started on universal healthcare. If there was a public option, I would take it. I don't understand the frenetic opposition to it. I just want reasonably-price public catastrophic care and an HSA. I'm cool with that. So many people – like myself – delay jumping into entrepreneurial ventures not because of money or doubt but because of fear of medical emergencies or insurance issues. I agree with you completely. We need a not-for-profit health insurance option.

    • There are several problems with government run healthcare. Just look at Medicare and Medicaid (people in favor of government healthcare often point to these programs too, which baffles me!) – these programs are essentially bankrupt. I don't know what part of bankrupt people don't understand. So you want to EXPAND these epic financial catastrophes by extending to everyone? It doesn't sound good to me.

      Search youtube for ” John Stossel – Sick in America”, its a fantastic interview he did with Michael Moore. He also offers more commentary from his web page:
      http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2007/

      How about the safeway plan for reducing healthcare costs?
      http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124476804026308

      You said you like choice in healthcare options. I guarantee you the “public option” is going to be more expensive than what you are currently paying (if you think healthcare is expensive now, wait till its free).

      Then again, I know the system has serious problems, especially for independent workers (consultants) if you eventually do get some health problem the insurer with jack up rates every year or try to dump you, leaving you with few if any options.

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  • Excellent article, as always. And I'm right there with you. I have the “stable corporate job,” but I don't deceive myself into thinking that it will really be there for me in 5 years, or that I won't leave if a better offer came along. I do it because it pays well and I have those “benefits” you mentioned.

    But I've also built several decent streams of income through my small business, and if I lost my job, I know I would have other options to fall back on.

    • @Patrick: Thanks! By the way, to anyone reading the comments, Patrick's blog cashmoneylife.com is an excellent resource for learning how to build, protect and grow income streams, as well as advice on your “traditional” career.

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  • I work at a “stable” job, and we're facing layoffs yet again. In the four years that I've worked here, there have been two major re-organizations, followed by layoffs and reassignments. The stable job is a myth.

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  • This is the great blog, I'm reading them for a while, thanks for the new posts!

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  • Haha, I can really relate. I was a consultant for 10 years, and every client tried to dangle the employee thing in front of me like it was some kind of upgrade (haha). At one client, who tried to hire me as a full time employee repeatedly, they eventually ended up firing all of the employees in the department but KEEPING the consultants! How's that for stability? The sad thing is that 5 consultants continued to do the work of what was once 80 employees, without really skipping a beat, and kept everything running just fine.

    Although I must admit, my last client did eventually put enough pressure on me that I was basically forced to become an employee or leave. But honestly, it doesn't really feel THAT much different, and the compensation is about the same when all is said and done… though there are some weird differences, you get more respect as a consultant.

  • EmploymentCrossing.com is definitely the most easily navigated job search site I have visited. I have been searching for that “perfect job” for about 2 months and have visited monster.com almost every day. I really enjoy this site, it allows me to track the number of people who have viewed my resume which at least makes me feel like I am doing something. With many of the other sites, you cannot tell if anyone has looked at your resume on the posted area.

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  • Dax Michaels

    You have a good head on your shoulders! If you want security however, there is some in Sweden…still!

  • Dax Michaels

    You have a good head on your shoulders! If you want security however, there is some in Sweden…still!