the myth of stable employment


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