As I said on the most recent Abscondo Podcast, the world is in the early stages of a large-scale, dramatic, disruptive period of change. I also promised to get specific about what this means in our lives. Let's start with the question of work and income because this aspect of adult life so often (and so unfortunately) tends to dominate others.
Telling you about my experiences will give my points more credibility. I spent a number of years on the professional straight-and-narrow. I spent 6 years going through University and ultimately earning my MBA. During the last 4 of those years, I also worked full-time in sales for small technology companies. As you can imagine, this made for very long days (8:00 am until 10:00 pm most weekdays). When I graduated, I went on to work for a few hot software companies in Seattle. This phase lasted about 6 years. What I remember of my professional life during those years are a lot of tired mornings, very long days in a gray cube staring at my computer in silence, not enough to do to fill my entire workday, and still leaving the office at the end of the day with a sense of guilt because I wasn't the last out. Conforming sucks. I also remember (and miss) some of the people I met, some of the good times we had at lunch, and some of the discussions we had in the office. But the negative aspects far-outweighed the positive. I wanted to live, to feel, to smell and taste the world around me. I wanted to be free.
By 2005, I had had enough. I was living for the weekends. Living for my once-a-year vacation. The person I was in my head was not the person I was in reality. Unfortunately, when you spend 9 hours of each day in the workplace, you have little time or energy left to truly become everything that you can be. My decision to enter a more "dynamic future" was not so much a reaction to the world changing around me (although leaving Bush's America certainly was not hard to do). It was a reaction to me not wanting to waste my life in an attempt to be financially secure. And what security was I being offered? In just 5 years, I had been through two acquisitions and many layoffs (one in which I lost a job). So the realization that my "secure future" was just an illusion -- this definitely played a role in my willingness to risk it all.
Many people today want to make a similar move either by choice or because they have no other choice. Jobs are even harder to come by than they were then, the pay is certainly no better, and conditions have only deteriorated since the year 2000. My prediction is that, over the next few years, the entire notion of the "employment model" will drastically shift. Of course companies will still need talent and they will still be willing to pay what that talent is worth. But why should any company hire you, take care of you, pay for your health care (in the US), provide a place for you to work, provide equipment, train you, pay for your vacation, and keep you on staff indefinitely even if you aren't producing any measurable results?
During good times, companies need more people and they'll hire anyone who's qualified. It is enough to do what you're told, to fit-in, and to lie low...to essentially position yourself as a commodity. But during difficult times (declining economic times), the first people to be let go and the last people to be hired are the people who have positioned themselves as commodities.
So the first survival tip is this: position yourself as unique. I'm not telling you to "just be yourself." Absolutely not. Not in the workplace. You need to develop a professional persona that demonstrates your unique value. More specifically, the only way to position yourself as the last person to be let go is to be the one that clearly makes the company money. Start asking yourself, with each decision you make each day, "How does this make the company money?" If you are being asked to do something that doesn't have any measurable value, then don't do it. Stand out by suggesting something else you could do, instead, that does. If you simply follow, you will be led astray by incompetent leaders. Stand up proudly and clearly state your opinion when you're right, even if that makes you a target. With this strategy, the real decision-makers will notice. They will keep you around even as your boss is let go. But be sure you're right. Always be right. Don't assume that upper-management is stupid, they probably just have reasons you don't know about or understand. Only take stands you are 100% sure about and don't do it all the time.
My biggest fear back in 2005, when I decided to move to Eastern Europe while trying to hold on to the same job I had in Seattle, was that I could no longer pretend to be "normal." I no longer fit in at all. I no longer had the luxury to do so even if I had wanted to. Now after 6 years of working on multiple teams for 2 different companies, I can tell you that the best thing you can do at work is to position yourself as a freak (a freak that is focused on making the company money).
By doing something as ridiculous as telling my VP that I wanted to do the job from Europe...that I was not asking, I was telling, and if it doesn't work out then I'll resign...that very act changed his level of respect for me. This, combined with my past performance, led to the opportunity to make my dream a reality. I became a contractor, making the same income as in Seattle, but living in Eastern Europe (or Cannes, or Paris, or London, or from wherever I happened to be at the moment and for however long I wanted to be there). All I needed was broadband and my VoIP phone and I was (sort of) free.
It took a long time to become comfortable in my professional freakishness, but I eventually learned to wear it on my sleeve. Yet, for many years, I worried that I'd lose that job. Then what would I do? Who would hire me over here? I feared that I'd have to leave the life that I had built abroad. Then it happened. It was announced that my company would be acquired by the second largest software company in the world. I was offered a position (with less pay), but turned it down because I got the impression that my individuality (freakishness) would not be accepted. This approach I'm describing works far better when working with smaller companies who are looking for more value out of fewer employees. So I declined the job and, to my pleasant surprise, secured a different contract (with a Canadian company) within 2 weeks! This job is even better than the one I left.
I should mention that I work between 10 - 15 hours per week for full-time pay (have been for many years now). I have time for writing, recording music, having a band, traveling, family, and relaxation. I work from home on my own terms. When I am asked to go to the office, I get to take a trip and spend time in nice hotels eating great food.
I believe this is exactly the sort of thing that is possible in this new era. What exactly are we supposed to be afraid of?
Of course this is only one person's story. It certainly doesn't apply to everyone. Of course you need some valuable skills that are useful to somebody (you need to make somebody else money or at least offer the promise that you will). Sales is a good profession for these times because companies will never stop trying to sell and will never stop investing in anyone or anything that will help them sell. Jobs relating to digital content and services will also be hot during these times (innovation in these areas will continue no matter how bad things get). These are just a few examples.
Another (even better) option is to not "work for" a company at all. Start your own company selling something on-line to consumers or businesses. I'd highly recommend reading Tim Ferriss' 4-Hour Workweek for specific ideas and advice here. I've not done this yet but will be going in that direction soon.
There is likely an enormous distance between where you are today and where you will need to be in order to position yourself for a successful, dynamic future in disruptive times. Start by increasing your skills, saving money (if you have a source of income today), and start taking every action and decision seriously (are you actually being productive or just busy?). Start positioning yourself as uniquely valuable, even if others on your team judge you harshly for it. Develop a professional persona that will enable your success. Stop talking about your personal life, your hobbies, and your ideals at work. When times get hard, when money gets tight, they will not keep paying for your lifestyle because they like you. More likely, "being yourself" at work will make you less impressive, less mysterious, and less valuable. Get a personal life for this. Establish an online persona to express this side of you. Use your professional persona at work.
Your professional life is a game. In fast-changing, disruptive times, the stakes are going to get higher and higher. Time to start playing the game to your advantage. Take company money to design the life that you want. Let others complain that it isn't fair. Of course it isn't fair. What about this fucked-up world is fair? Have you seen the living conditions in most of Africa, Russia, China, India, etc., etc.? You've heard that we are destroying the world in everything we do? It's true, and having a more passive attitude at work isn't going to change the way the world is. Don't allow yourself the luxury of such a silly false dilemma.
But you can find meaning, you can change the world in your own way, and you can even help others even as you do take care of your own sources of income. How are are you supposed to do this if you are struggling and someone else is always being forced to help you? I'm certainly not advocating that you do anything professionally that is squarely against your values, but let me ask you this: what job in the world is consistent with any values worth having? Teaching? Perhaps, but then again your students are only going to take what you've taught them and put it to use in jobs that do the world no good. In reality, when you think about it, the only reason anybody will give you any money is because doing so will make them more money than they give you.
See my point? Time to change the game.