we are all consultants now

In trying to understand the way jobs are evolving, particularly for white collar professions, I find two phrases quite useful:

  • We are all between job searches.
  • All jobs are now contract consulting jobs.

“Whoa, wait a minute!” you might exclaim. “I have a steady job!  I’ve been there for 5 years, and I’m a full-time employee with a load of benefits!  There’s no way I could consider myself as a contract consultant, and I don’t plan to search for a new job anytime soon!”  Well, I have news for you are:  you should, and you will.

We are all between job searches

The average person born in the later years of the baby boom held 10.8 jobs from age 18 to age 42. according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics of the U.S.  That’s people a little bit older than my age group (I’m early Gen X).  The rates are even higher for milllenials.  So think about that:  the average person changes jobs approximately every two years.  That’s the average, which means that many people change jobs more frequently than that.  Even if we discount the “can’t hold a job” types, it’s a safe bet to make that most people will change jobs within the next few years.

Anecdotally, I’ve met a number of people who worked for a company for 30 years who suddenly find themselves back in the hunt due to downsizing, sale of the company, mergers, etc. It’s simply unrealistic to assume that with today’s rapid changes in technology, high unemployment and global competition that employers will be loyal to older, higher-salaried employees.  They won’t be.  So even if you’ve held that job for years, there’s someone there who will do it cheaper, and maybe better.

All jobs are now contract consulting jobs

This is a point I’ve heard made by a lot of career coaches.  It’s not so much that structurally we are all contract consultants.  I happen to be a contract consultant, which means I lack a lot of the benefits of an employee:  I don’t get medical insurance partially paid for by an employer, I don’t have 401(k) matching funds, I don’t have vacation time and I don’t get a company car.  I do get time and half pay for overtime, a much more flexible schedule and I get paid substantially more than my full-time colleagues, meaning I can take care of those other ‘lacks’ with the far greater gross salary I get.  But the benefits are just a smoke screen, and easy access to them is one way employers try to distract you from the reality of your job:  you are not in business for your employer; you have to think of yourself as being in business for yourself, even if (especially if!) you are a full-time employee.
My average contract runs about 9 months to a year. As we noted above, the average employee changes jobs every two years.  Do you think the need to define yourself as a ‘brand’ isn’t important if you change jobs?  You need to create the same selling proposition if you’re an employee that a consultant does.  You aren’t someone who can afford to latch onto one good company and then throw yourself into that company’s business to the exclusion of your own career.  You need to network and sell just as aggressively as a consultant.  Nobody has the time to take time off from preparing for the next job anymore.  I’ve seen it happen too often:  people who get comfortable at a job and let their network fall apart.  They don’t stay abreast of changes in their industry.  They don’t think about keeping an eye out for the next job, and then WHAM!  Here comes a downsizing after the company missed earnings in the latest quarter.

Conclusion:  Always think two steps ahead

It’s said about great chess players that their greatest ability is the ability to think multiple moves ahead. A grand master isn’t looking at her opponent’s move and reacting to that: she’s looking at that move, her move, her opponent’s potential counter moves and so on for 7-8 moves into the future.  That’s how you need to think about your job.  Don’t just find “the next job” – think about how that could position you for the next job.  Think how it’s going to look on a resume five years from now.  And don’t think you won’t move on.  You will.  I’d be willing to bet that almost no-one who’s an employee reading this post who is less than 40 years old will retire working for their current company.  But I am willing to bet that anyone who learns these new paradigms (1. We are all between job searches and 2. All jobs are now contract consulting jobs) will prosper in the challenging job markets in the years ahead.


6 Replies to “we are all consultants now”

  1. Steve, thanks so much for expressing this so eloquently. Having been “down sized” back in 2009 this is exactly the lesson that I learned. Fortunately I was prepared for it because I had seen the writing on the wall. But there were many that were laid off with me that were “company people” and did not see this coming from a mile away.

    Jobs are temporary and there is no such thing as job security. I would also add the importance of savings and living on less than you make and not relying solely on a job for your income. I am a believer that every one should have a business on their own even if it’s part time aside from your job.

  2. I worked 13 different jobs from ages 18-40. I’ve had a relatively coherent career over the last 14 years (meaning each next job made sense in light of the previous and future ones), and have worked longer at each successive employer. I realized if I maintain that pattern, and if I retire at 65 (both huge ifs!) I have 25 years and possibly four employers left. We’ll see how it actually pans out of course.

  3. This is my experience as well, I’ve been something of a job hopper for the last 20 years. The problem I’m finding is, I’ve reached an age/stage where I’m just TIRED of change and the idea of learning more and more and more in order to keep up with technology makes me want to go raise goats. I’ve worked myself into a position that I couldn’t actually get if I were applying for it — on paper, I’m not qualified. This leaves me feeling rather insecure and I know I need to do something to secure myself against the next big change but I completely lack the energy to do so. At what point does it stop??? Death??

  4. Steve – As a 43 year old year long term manager at a “stable” incumbent telco I had fallen into a false sense of security, complacency, and lack of career preparation which was especially easy to do with 2 new kids on the scene. Now “permanent” positions are not being filled and an army of come and go consultants is being used wherever possible. Fortunately in the last year I’ve seen the writing on the wall and am preparing for change but the vast majority of company “lifers” haven’t given this reality a moment’s thought. Thanks for another on of your many “spot on” articles!

  5. I’ve been a consultant since college (in various different forms….big firm, small firm, on my own) and I’ve been telling all my friends the same thing for years. Everyone is a consultant! There really is no such thing as one job your whole career anymore. Even if you do stay at the same company you will likely change departments and roles and always have to be looking ahead.

  6. I’ve been a independent consultant for 5 years and before that I worked for a consulting company. I can honestly say I’ve never been at the same job site for more than 2 years.

    I’ve never thought about it this way before but your 100% right. The days of getting one job and going with that until you get the gold watch are over. People need to think ahead and always plan for change and hopefully growth.

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