There is no shortage of books claiming to reveal the secret truth behind successful careers. Then there are all the podcasts, TED talks, late-night motivational speakers and your relatives’ sage advice. The bottom line of most of these advice-givers? A successful career requires managing the person in the mirror – overcoming your tendencies and habits that can undermine efforts to find happiness at work. Read on to see what professors and researchers suggest for managing different situations, whether you want to improve your situation at work, if you suspect changes are coming down, or if you are making a go of it in the gig economy.
Build a Strong Foundation
There are some key fundamentals of building a successful career that you should be aware of whether you are just starting out, or are closing in on retirement.
There are some key fundamentals of building a successful career, whether you are just starting out, or are closing in on retirement. And they apply to all walks of life – if you are a butcher, a baker or a computer systems analyst. Fair warning, the following tried-and-true strategies will have little impact on what you do every day. They will not necessarily help you meet an assignment due by Friday morning, or complete a to-do list.
Instead, they are foundations that will give you a solid base on which to build a successful career that can withstand unexpected changes. These ideas will also help you put work and career in proper perspective, because there is a lot more to life beyond the daily grind.
THE VALUE OF NETWORKING
There’s no getting around it: Networking has an awful reputation. It conjures up images of self-absorbed corporate ladder-climbers whose main interest is, “What’s in it for me?”
But there is almost unanimous agreement among researchers that building and nurturing relationships with people — current and former colleagues and people we respect in the business — provides a strong medium for a vibrant career and a cushion for when the unplanned happens.
The good news is that you already enjoy the benefits of networks, both formal and informal. Think of the people you work with every day, the people you’ll ask, “Why isn’t the printer working?” or “Have you tried the new coffee place down the street?” Think of this as your local network.
Then think of co-workers you run into on a regular basis; these are people you have a working relationship with and know well enough to have an occasional conversation. You might call them your outer circle.
Next, former colleagues and old bosses. They might be your extended circle.
That’s just three very generalized networks. You could have many more – a network built around the company softball team, or parents who can suggest daycare providers, or a companywide project you are involved in. Networks provide a connection with fellow workers, an emotional link with someone who knows us. But they also provide a source of information or business intel – about your department, your business or your industry.
In fact, it is often the distant links in your networks that provide the most value – such as helping you find a job. The sociologist Mark Granovetter makes a distinction between strong ties (close friends, family, co-workers) and weak ties (former classmates, ex-colleagues, people we know but not well). In “The Strength of Weak Ties,” he shows how these more distant links provide doorways into other networks we wouldn’t normally have access to.
Your goal is to attend to these different relationships the way you might attend to a garden. They require some nurturing, some giving in order to receive. In other words, pay attention and put in some time.
HOW TO GET STARTED
If you sense your networking muscles need some exercise, here are a few ways to get started. In all these cases, you will often have to be the initiator. So get used to that idea.
• Start small. When you run into a former coworker at your place of business, say more than a quick hello. Try to take a moment and find out how they are doing. Jobs and responsibilities are always changing, and, frankly, it’s nice when someone takes a sincere interest in our lives.
• Take a leap. Invite folks to drinks after work, or to join you in a company-sponsored volunteer effort. The thing here is just getting to know people a bit better beyond working hours.
• Use social media. Social media is rightly maligned for so many reasons, but there’s no doubt it can be an effective career tool. LinkedIn and Facebook can provide an effective and relatively painless way to reach out to people you know, especially those who have changed jobs. Think of a colleague or classmate you’ve lost touch with, and make contact with a simple “what’s new?” message. Relate a little (no more than a few sentences!) on what you’ve been up to, and ask how they’ve been doing. The thing to avoid here is sounding, well, needy or creepy – that just confirms the worst stereotypes of networks.
• Just be sincere: You are trying to re-establish connections with some old co-workers. And don’t take it personally if you don’t hear back; if your colleague wants to write back, he or she will.
• Remember to keep your profiles up to date. Whatever your feelings about social media, an outdated profile isn’t doing you any good.
NETWORKING ALONE ISN’T ENOUGH
The kind of networking described here is a slow and steady expansion of your social contacts in your company and industry. It has emotional benefits and it improves your business savvy. But it won't instantly land job-seekers an interview with a C.E.O., or the chance to pitch a start-up idea to venture capitalists.
Not that it can’t. Your friend from college might just know someone who knows someone, but often when we hear about people who have gotten a big break, it’s because they created something that got some notice. In a recent essay, Adam Grant, a professor at the Wharton School, urged that doing impressive work may be as important as networking skills: “In life, it certainly helps to know the right people. But how hard they go to bat for you, how far they stick their necks out for you, depends on what you have to offer. Building a powerful network doesn’t require you to be an expert at networking. It just requires you to be an expert at something.”
Careers thrive when people keep up with changes in their fields. In every endeavor there is new technology, new “best practices,” changing regulations and previously unforeseen challenges. This applies to both the skilled mason and the architect of office towers.
Most jobs fall into a pattern over time – or at least they seem to — but in fact they are changing in incremental ways. We may fail to anticipate the changes around the corner. Staying on top of changes in your field can keep your career on track and vibrant. You may see an unexpected opportunity when a job opening is posted. Or it may tell you that it’s time to get out of our job, before it changes for the worse.
The goal here: Keep your head up, and avoid falling into a rut.
Some ways to achieve this:
• Join a professional organization and attend their events. Better yet, take part in different projects and help make presentations. You’ll learn more about your field, gain valuable experience, raise your profile and meet new people in your industry.
• Enroll in workshops and training sessions. If they are offered at your workplace, these opportunities will expose you to something new, even if they don’t always overlap with your current job.
• Continue your education by taking classes in your field. There are several ways to do this, from the many free and relatively cheap courses online to attending a local brick-and-mortar school. Some labor unions, too, offer training. If you aren’t sure what kind of course to take, ask coworkers or your supervisor. (If you hope to use this extra class to launch a move into another field, make sure you have guidance from people in that line of work.) Are you seeking a specific degree or certificate, such as an M.B.A., or simply looking for a course to fill in a gap in your knowledge? You can find both kinds of courses, but don’t confuse one with the other. And be sure to check whether your employer can help underwrite the tuition. Many companies offer this benefit for classes that relate to your job. If this is an option, make sure your course plan satisfies your company’s rules.
• Become the teacher. If you have a special skill or knowledge, consider becoming an adjunct professor in your field at a college or university. Higher education institutions rely on adjuncts to teach professional courses. You’ll earn some extra money and meet other adjuncts, who will give you new perspectives on your field.
BUT REMEMBER ... YOU ARE NOT YOUR CAREER
It’s important to remember that your career does not define you. Ask David M. Solomon, a co-president of Goldman Sachs, perhaps the most influential bank on Wall Street, who spends his free time spinning tunes as D.J. D-Sol. Or Mike Esposito, a good friend, who was a prize-winning woodcarver when he wasn’t working as a telephone line technician. Taking an interest in something unrelated to your work can be a way to energize your interest in all things. Studies have shown that stimulating hobbies and interests correlate with less burnout and a greater ability to overcome adversity in your job.
The goal is to find something that has nothing to do with your job or family obligations, but has everything to do with what makes you tick. Some ideas to get you started:
• Take up creative activities like knitting and weaving, stress-busters sometimes known as “moving meditation”; or with your spouse or a friend take up a sport you’ve always been interested in; or learn to play a musical instrument or join a chorus.
• Volunteer for a cause you feel strongly about. Look for creative avenues to address the problems you are working on.
• If you prefer intellectual stimulation, take courses in subjects you always wanted to take in college but skipped – art history, astronomy, history, whatever.
• Get involved in community theater, rock climbing, adult coloring books, stand-up comedy … the list is almost endless.
You’re not necessarily exploring an alternative career, but letting your nonwork curiosity flourish for a while. It’s a phenomenon explored by David Heenan in his book “Double Lives,” which encourages “parallel paths” – your career and an outside interest. It’s not a stretch to predict that your outside interest will make your workday hassles easier to handle, relieving some of the self-induced pressure and opening up some creative energy that can be directed at your work assignments.
Improving a Job You Like
You are happy and settled with a job you pretty much enjoy. All is good. Or is it?
Let’s say you have a job you like but want to do even better and take on more challenging roles. Or maybe you are seeking a more prominent role in your organization, commensurate with your skills and interests. Or perhaps you have a nagging feeling that you aren’t being recognized for what you’ve brought to your team. Do any of these ring a bell?
In a perfect universe, this sense of dissatisfaction would solve itself – the boss would recognize your efforts and potential, and you’d receive better assignments, a better work shift and a raise. Or a new job would open up in your organization that would meet your professional goals and you’d move into it seamlessly. Alas, all good things don’t just happen on their own. Improving your situation at work will most likely require some proactive attention. It begins with a careful assessment of the person we’re dealing with.
A SELF-ASSESSMENT: WHAT'S THE PLAN?
As organizations and entire industries face a nearly nonstop need to reorganize and reset priorities, it’s especially important for employees to have a clearly stated sense of what they want. The goal here is a personal mission statement that can provide guidance throughout your career. Yet it can be drawn up at any time.
You may already be asked annually for a self-assessment by your boss. This exercise is different. This one is purely for your own consumption and the goal is to establish a baseline of where you are, how you are doing and where you want to be. This kind of review should address:
• Your strengths and weaknesses in your present job.
• Your skills and limitations.
• Your recent accomplishments and shortcomings.
PUTTING IT TOGETHER
Take the time to write this down, in whatever fashion you prefer, from spreadsheet to personal essay. But writing it down is important – it helps organize the flotsam of ideas and feelings about work that we carry with us every day, and allows you to add or subtract things over time. Once done, you should refer back to it on a regular basis (semiannually doesn’t seem too often) and update it as necessary to reflect any changes in your situation.
Critical here is becoming aware of your own natural strengths and interests. You may already have a pretty firm grasp of them, or you may discover them as you piece together your self-assessment. If you are unsure, turn to a trusted colleague or former boss; their viewpoint will be especially valuable. If you are still uncertain, you could turn to the many self-assessment quizzes of varying quality and detail available online. Some are free (at least to start), such as the MAPP test from Assessment.com, and others charge a fee, like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test (about $50).
Knowing who you are and what you want prepares you for those occasional conversations with your boss about your future. These chats are times for information sharing between employers (who like happy workers but have certain needs to fill) and employees (who want to be happy but also need jobs).
“Talent management at its best is a negotiated outcome between two parties, both of whom understand what they want and need,” according to James Hunt, Nan S. Langowitz, Keith Rollag, and Karen Hebert-Maccaro, professors at Babson College, who wrote a paper titled “Who Am I? Learning From and Leveraging Self-Awareness.”
RAISING YOUR PROFILE
You may look at your self-assessment and tell yourself, “Damn, I’m one of the best workers here and nobody knows it!” If so, it may be time to make a concentrated effort to raise your profile in the workplace. This will likely take some extra work. But here are a few suggestions, and none of them are backbreakers.
• Step up to solve problems. You and your coworkers can probably come up with dozens of small (or large) processes that don’t work for some reason – a software issue, a procedure issue, a deadline that no one can ever meet. But everyone is so busy that no one has time to find a solution. Make yourself that person. Take on one or two of these issues. Odds are, the answer may simply involve getting the attention of the person in your organization who can address it.
• Suggest it. Be alert to your brainstorms to make your department’s work easier or better. Suggest them to your boss, and if she green-lights them, be ready to take the next step to make them a reality. Don’t be hurt if your idea gets turned down; these things are like batting averages, and one out of three is excellent. The point is that you’ve made a stab at improving your workplace.
• Speak up. Some people have absolutely no hesitation chattering away in group sessions and team meetings. Others have a natural reticence. It’s fine to keep quiet if you have nothing to add, but you aren’t doing anyone any good by withholding a helpful comment or good question. If speaking in these settings doesn’t come naturally, try to take a moment before the meeting to develop some questions. Some experts recommend trying to be the first person to speak up once the floor is opened up to questions – if only to quickly get the monkey off one’s back.
And don’t feel like you have to ask a Nobel Prize-winning question. It’ll be easier once you get started. There are many other ways to make your role a little more prominent.
• Look for ways to solve a headache for your boss.
• Offer to mentor new employees, or coach co-workers about a new technology or tool.
• Take on a task or work a shift that isn’t exactly a favorite among the staff.
ANOTHER WAY OF LOOKING AT IT
Our offices are tiny societies where teamwork is prized, and we praise colleagues who do an outstanding job. But someone who always tries to position themselves at the front of the parade can expect a cool reception from the group.
In his book “Invisibles: The Power of Anonymous Work in an Age of Relentless Self-Promotion,” David Zweig heaps praise on the people who do good and excellent work without preening and polishing their personal brand. He argues that the relentless push to promote obscures the joy of quietly and professionally doing a good job. The issue is more pointed in some industries. An Op-Ed essay on the book by Anna North points out that “tech companies, for instance, tend to disproportionately respect those who are young, white and male. And women are often advised to promote themselves more aggressively in order combat the entrenched sexism of the workplace.”
The bottom line: Everything in moderation. If you want to stretch and do better by your department, go for it. Be the best you can be. But good work truly blooms when it is discovered, rather than placed under the boss’s nose.
WHAT ABOUT A RAISE?
Your impulse to ask for a raise may have been sparked the moment you discovered your lazy co-worker’s paystub left behind at the printer. But that doesn’t mean you should walk into your boss’s office and deliver an ultimatum.
Barring a snafu in your payroll department, it’s safe to assume that your company is paying you what it thinks your work is worth, given your particular industry and market.
That means the burden of proof is on you to make the case that you are owed more.
BE PREPARED, AND DON'T ASK FOR A GIFT
Like a good lawyer about to argue a case, preparation is critical to improving your chances of success. From a variety of experts, here are some points to consider.
• First, do some research on salaries in your field. Data is available from different online sources (the Bureau of Labor Statistics compiles data for over 800 occupations; many other sites gather their data from different sources). Discussing salaries can be difficult, but consider talking to colleagues or former coworkers. If you belong to a union and work according to a contract, check to see where you stand on the pay scales.
• Collect your “attaboy” and “attagirl” testimonials and complimentary comments from evaluations.
• Rehearse your arguments. Not just on paper, but speak them aloud (yes, it will help to have a friend play the boss).
• Don’t chicken out and make your request for a raise via email. Set up a meeting time with your boss and signal that it will be an important conversation.
Your attitude at the meeting is critical. “You’ve got to go into these discussions with a clear sense that this is something you have earned, not a gift from your boss,” said Kenneth N. Siegel, an industrial psychiatrist and president of the Impact Group, a leadership consulting firm.
The fact that women still make about 80 cents for every dollar paid to men has been partly attributed to the differences in how men and women approach the negotiating process itself. Researchers say women are less likely to negotiate an initial salary offer than men, putting them behind from the beginning. Men generally see negotiations as a competitive situation and are more willing to walk away, studies have found, while women tend to be more accommodating and will seek to work out a solution. The American Association of University Women, a leading organization in the cause of pay equity, regularly holds salary negotiation workshops around the country. See their website for details.
You’re Told a Raise Is Impossible. Now What?
Here are some fallback positions if your boss says a pay raise is out of the question, either because of financial restrictions or your work doesn’t merit it:
• Offer to take on more responsibilities if that increases the chances of a raise.
• Propose agreeing to revisit the raise request at a future date, say in six months, when the company’s finances may be more flexible.
• Consider asking for more vacation time, or a better work schedule, or broader training opportunities in place of a raise.
• Negotiate for a bonus or stock options.
Disruptions and Change
Whether you leave a job by choice — either permanently or temporarily — or if the decision is made for you, there are things you can do to make the best of the situation.
For years, Gallup has regularly asked people if they were “engaged” at work, meaning involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their job. Only about a third said yes in the most recent poll.
Everyone has bad days at work that send them home grumbling. But when the bad days become every day and the job has lost all appeal, it’s time to review your options.
REASONS FOR HANGING ON
As tempting as it may be to cut yourself loose from an unsatisfying job, there are several reasons to pause before submitting a resignation, reports Farai Chideya in her book, “The Episodic Career.”
• Employers often practice “unemployment discrimination,” preferring to hire candidates employed elsewhere rather than someone not in a job.
• Your self-confidence (and bargaining position) as a job seeker will be higher if you are presently employed elsewhere.
• It may make sense to wait it out. Organizations transition quickly these days, so a boss you don’t get along with may be assigned elsewhere – or an appealing opening in your organization may open up.
• You’ll have an easier time paying your bills while job searching if you have a day job.
BUT IF IT'S REALLY TIME TO MOVE ON
If you’ve concluded it’s time to pack up and take your work elsewhere, congratulations! Quitting can be the first step toward reinvention.
Images of steadfastness and persistence, of “never giving up,” are familiar hallmarks of a person with good character, or so we’re told. “Winners never quit and quitters never win,” right?
Hogwash, some career advisers urge.
In “Mastering the Art of Quitting: Why It Matters in Life, Love and Work,” Peg Streep and Alan Bernstein reject the “myth of persistence” and why we keep doing things that don’t bring satisfaction. They point out that quitting a disappointing job encourages growth and learning. It’s the first step, and only the first step, toward setting new goals and setting a new mission for yourself.
WHEN THE DEPARTURE WASN'T BY CHOICE
Odds are, if you are in this situation, you feel hurt, humiliated and angry. Getting fired, even from a job you didn’t enjoy, is a kick in the gut. And a layoff, even one that’s couched in language of “a numbers game,” isn’t much better. Realize that, emotionally, it’ll take a while to recover.
Advice on the intricacies of severance packages, health care coverage and possible legal action against your employer are complicated issues that are best served with individual advice from professionals.. Here, let’s consider the seven stages of getting back on your feet.
1. Take some time to emotionally recover. Your instinct may be to jump immediately into a job search – partly to erase the stigma some feel about being unemployed, and perhaps also because you want to stick it to your old boss to show how quickly you were rehired. But don’t be hasty. You could make a bad decision.
2. Look honestly at the situation that led to your dismissal. Process how it happened, how you got in that situation and what lessons you can take from it. If you were fired, you may need to accept at least some of the blame.
3. Keep your chin up. For your own sake, and especially for loved ones around you, try not to be miserable. This is a time to reconfigure your career. It’s an opportunity many people never get. Take a short “sabbatical,” and reexamine what you want to do.
4. Realize that the job landscape has changed around you. (And, by the way, was this part of the reason why you were laid off or dismissed in the first place?) Even if you feel compelled to keep doing the same sort of job, take a moment and reconsider.
5. Despite No.3 above, don’t wait too long before reentering the job market. A long gap between jobs will draw the attention of a prospective employer and many companies unfortunately practice “unemployment discrimination” – shunning candidates who have been out of work for a long while.
6. Don’t feel like you can’t get a job because of how you left your last job. Companies are changing all the time these days, letting highly skilled people go, and hiring managers will be aware of this trend.
7. Get over any bitterness you feel about your previous employer – or at least, don’t let it poison your job interviews. Be forward looking and positive.
TO KEEP IN MIND WHEN SEARCHING FOR JOB
Nothing has changed the notion that you need to know someone to find a job. But there’s an online job-search industry that essentially encourages you to send résumés to as many job openings as possible. At the receiving end, companies looking for a candidate to fill a job can be swamped with applications, the vast majority of which barely overlap with the qualifications necessary for the position.
This is when the networking discussed earlier in this guide really comes in handy. If you suddenly find yourself in need of a job, your best resource will be the collection of people you know – and who know you – who can provide intelligence about who might be hiring or even open doors and make a call for you. And remember that research has shown the value of “weak ties” – the extended network of old classmates and ex-coworkers, for example – in finding jobs.
Here are few other things to remember:
• Customize your cover letter and résumé. Do this for every job and company you are applying for. This is a bit of flattery, but also demonstrates your willingness to work for this job. Be aware, though, that varying your text presents additional opportunities for errors in grammar or spelling, so make sure to proofread your material several times.
• Make sure your online profiles are up to date with your latest skills. Job recruiters often troll through these sites looking for qualified candidates.
• Get out and talk to people. Reach out to people in the company or field where you want to work, ask about openings and how they got started. It’s sometimes surprising what happens when you ask for some help. You will learn things, including whether the field you are thinking about is a good match.
• If you are nearing retirement age but still want to work, beware of the difficulties your age may pose. Age discrimination is tough to prove, but many older job seekers know it as a fact of life. To find a job that feels like a good fit – not like something that fitted you 20 years ago – you might look for smaller organizations, including nonprofits, that will take advantage of your experience and expertise.
• Consider a career counselor. If you are having a hard time getting back on your feet after a job loss, career counselors can help with résumé writing and career coaching. Fees vary, but expect private counselors to charge several hundred dollars for a few sessions. There are also free services offered through the federal Department of Labor’s CareerOneStop services.
RETURNING FROM AN EXTENDED LEAVE
Reasons are varied why someone may need to temporarily drop out of the workforce: to raise children, or care for aging parents, or perhaps to follow a spouse or partner whose job moves overseas. Ending these hiatuses and rejoining the daily work world after a year or more away might seem daunting.
“Choosing to take an extended leave to raise children can make you feel particularly unfit for returning to the job market,” write Carol Fishman Cohen and Vivian Steir Rabin in their book, “Back on the Career Track.” The writers cite, among other things, a sense among returning employees that they have fallen behind the pace of technological changes at work, and attitudes that someone who has been away from regular employment isn’t ready to put her nose to the grindstone.
Prospective employers, looking at a résumé with a big gap in the work history, may have similar apprehensions. But people return to the workforce after an extended leave every day. And there are ways to make the transition easier.
THE BENEFITS OF THINKING AHEAD
If you can, make plans to return to your present company before you leave your job. Even if you are uncertain when you’ll be able to resume working, talk to your supervisor and perhaps the human resources department about coming back.
It’s unlikely they will be able to make any kind of commitment, but your conversation may offer some guidance, and leaving on a good note will help all concerned. And while you are away, try to check in occasionally with your coworkers or even your supervisor, both to stay up to date on what’s going on in the office and to remind them that you haven’t completely fallen off a cliff.
Upon returning to your previous employer, realize you may need to initially take a lesser role than you once had. And your supervisor may end up being someone you once hired and supervised. This can be a little mind-bending at first.
RE-ENTRY PROGRAMS AND OTHER OPPORTUNITIES
Some industries, including finance and law, have begun initiatives to help highly qualified people resume a successful career. At Morgan Stanley’s Return to Work program, for example, candidates are offered a paid internship after which they may be offered a permanent position.
If the company you’d like to work for doesn’t offer a similar program, then propose one: suggest a paid internship, or work on a contract or project basis, if they aren’t ready to offer you a full-time job. This will be a chance for you to show how essential you can be, and you’ll be able to reacquaint yourself to work life. Some other things to think about:
• Networks will be critical to your job search, and if you’ve been on leave for awhile you may need to start a professional network from scratch. If so, begin modestly. Get involved with alumni organizations, revive and energize your LinkedIn account, and volunteer with professional organizations. The idea is to meet up and talk with people to get a sense of the job landscape.
• Your “away” time may be an ideal time to go back to school, perhaps via online classes. You’ll bolster your expertise and credentials for when you start working again and demonstrate to a prospective employer some measure of your dedication to the field. These classes might also provide a bit of respite or diversion from caring for loved ones.
• Men take time to care for loved ones, too: Articles and workshops about returning to work are usually aimed at women, because in most families women are still mostly likely to be willing to step away from work to care for children or parents. But career counselors say the bias against at-home dads is lessening because more men are doing it. Men shouldn’t feel defensive about returning to the workforce after time spent caring for others.
Making a Go at the 'Gig Economy’
Making a living through independent work — by choice or necessity — can be both freeing or grueling. Here are some tips to consider.
We are living in a golden age of temp work, part-time jobs and freelance opportunities. Technological change is driving a lot of this, in different ways. Automation has forced hundreds of thousands of service and manufacturing workers out of well-paying full-time jobs. But technology has also created employment, through platforms that match provider with customer. For example, there are ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft. On-demand service platforms like TaskRabbit. Companies like LiveOps that direct customer service calls to individuals working at home with a headset. EBay and Etsy help you find an audience for whatever you want to sell. Airbnb encourages you to rent out a spare bedroom. Upwork and Thumbtack match freelancers in a variety of fields with people needing work done. Amazon has its MechanicalTurk, which pays you to complete online tasks.
Many corporations, meanwhile, are changing the way they are organized, creating teams of workers who come together to accomplish a goal, and then break up when the job is complete. The writer Adam Davidson says Hollywood provides a model: the many people (costumers, lighting technicians, actors, makeup artists, cinematographers, set designers, etc.) who are hired for a few months to make a movie, and then break up after the movie wraps.
The percentage of American workers engaging in temp or on-call work, contract work or freelance work rose to nearly 16 percent in late 2015, up from 10 percent in 2005, according to a study by the economists Lawrence F. Katz and Alan B. Krueger.
More recently, McKinsey found that up to 162 million people in the United States and Europe — or 20 to 30 percent of the working-age population — take part in independent work.
WHAT TO EXPECT
Is the gig economy a good thing? Many would say no, that it lets greedy corporations off the hook too easily, and puts us all on endless hamster wheels of low-paying work, scrambling to find the next gig to pay the bills. Others insist it is a realistic response to a new labor landscape, and that, handled well, can provide a better life than working for a large organization and always fearing the next round of layoffs. Perhaps both sides are right? What’s clear is that millions of Americans are trying to make it work. It helps to look at the pros and cons of independent work.
IN THE PRO COLUMN:
• A better home-life mix. You can expect to have more control over your schedule when you work on-demand or freelance. This can feel liberating after the controlling schedules of life as an employee. Perhaps you want to home-school your children but can’t give up earning an income. Or you want time more time to travel. A survey compiled by LinkedIn and Intuit found that 67 percent of freelance workers were satisfied or highly satisfied with their work-life balance.
• A sense that you are in control of your life. If you prefer to have your hand on the steering wheel of your career, the gig economy may be for you. You may work just as hard, or harder, but it will be work that you will have chosen, rather than was imposed on you.
• Encourages an entrepreneurial view of life. It will be to your advantage to explore and develop new ideas for work – to come up with ideas to use your skills, to be resourceful, to stay up late some nights planning the day ahead. Work will not be handed to you.
• For retirees, a source of extra income. The gig economy has a lot of appeal for people who have retired from a traditional full-time job but still want some stimulation and a stream of money coming in.
AND ON THE CON SIDE:
• Your pay will be unpredictable. The steady reliability of the same paycheck every pay period will disappear. You will have some great months and not-so-great months. This will require some discipline in your spending.
• You may need to get used to a smaller income. Corporate layoffs and empty storefronts are a reminder that the numbers aren’t adding up in much of the economy. Becoming an independent worker may mean you’ll need to scale back and consider living a simpler life. Advocates say this may be the temporary cost of taking more control over your life – and that you could end up making more money and living a better life in the end. But transitions can be difficult.
• You’ll lose corporate benefits you may have had. Things like company contributions to health insurance, unemployment insurance, disability income, paid vacations and 401(k) matches will go away when you are on your own. You’ll need to reassess your needs and set aside money.
• You’ll need to be disciplined with your schedule and finances. For many people in the gig economy, no week is the same as the one before it. A sense of the daily routine – which can be a creature comfort or a source of mind-numbing boredom – will be out the window. If you have two or more sources of work, all with different deadlines and time requirements, you’ll need to become an expert at keeping a good schedule. The same goes for your finances and accounting. You’ll need to keep good receipts for tax purposes. Keep track of payments – and get ready for a situation when you might have to demand payments when a customer is tardy.
• Fear of the unknown. This is perhaps the biggest reason some people are repulsed by the independent-worker lifestyle. Will you be able to pay the bills? Will you be happy or miserable? The prospects may strike you as thrilling and life-affirming, or may keep you awake every night. But for many people, they have no choice.
IT'S A SKILLS BASED ECONOMY
People who have studied the gig economy are beginning to come to some conclusions on how workers can best position themselves for success.
“The Gig Economy is an economy of skills, and skilled workers are the winners who take all,” says Diane Mulcahy, a business professor at Babson College and author of the book “The Gig Economy.”
Her point: True success in this environment requires having at least one skill (hopefully, more than one) that can qualify you for good-paying and satisfying work. The contrast here is with poor-paying jobs that offer little or no benefits or autonomy, such as some retail jobs. Stringing together two or three part-time jobs like these will run you ragged and provide little security.
Your skill (think of software coding, small engine repair, legal research, commercial real estate sales, language translation, set design, trombone playing, and on and on) may already be the focus of your current, traditional job.
DEVELOP A PORTFOLIO OF SKILLS AND INTERESTS
Beyond having a single marketable skill, you should have a range of skills and interests that can provide a base for your work. Make a list of the things people say you are good at or that you enjoy doing. Diversifying provides security: you aren’t pinning your future to one industry, or one kind of work. You don’t need to look far to find people who have turned their portfolio into sources of income.
A woman I know needed a flexible work schedule because she had several young children at home. Her major skill: She is a talented artist who enjoys painting. Another part of her portfolio: She’s a good public speaker and enjoys teaching. And she has a strong interest in essential oils and odd, quirky decor. She translates all these skills into several sources of income. She teaches painting classes for adults and children at the local library, and at evening get-togethers in private homes. She also keeps an eye on rummage sales and local auctions, looking for small household items to clean up and resell online. And she sells a line of essential oils that can be used to make household cleansers.
It’s a range of activities that dovetail with her interests and time constraints, and provides a diversified stream of income.
HAVE THE WORK COME TO YOU
The nature of independent work, with its ebbs and flows, means you can end up spending a lot of time scrambling for that next gig, the next project.
A better way is to have people contact you with work they need performed. This comes from developing a reputation in your line of work. Some call this creating a brand.
(Wallflowers, step aside.)
“Many people don’t want to deal with the hassle of a ‘permanent career campaign,’” wrote Dorie Clark, author of “Reinventing You.” “They think it’s too much work to contemplate their personal brand, maintain their social media footprint, or cultivate relationships when they’re not on the make for a new job. Those are the people who will lose.”
Think of your personal brand as simply letting people know who you are and what you do, and what work you have accomplished recently – through networking, personal contacts or a website. Remember, you are independent of the big corporation, and you should spend some part of your time drawing work to yourself. Being invisible isn’t a good idea, or lucrative.
MANAGE YOUR TIME WELL
Often overlooked, good time management becomes critical when you are an independent worker. You could have multiple jobs or projects, with overlapping deadlines.
You’ll also need time to keep track of your expenses, bookkeeping and billing. You’ll need time to be looking ahead: not just to what you want to be doing next week but next year and longer. Like any enterprise, you’ll need some “research and development” time to consider wholly new things to get into.
And don’t forget to take advantage of down time in your job, and schedule time to take off. And then, there are ever-present personal responsibilities, which can balloon at a moment’s notice. You’ll have more flexibility to deal with these issues, but you’ll have to adjust your work schedule to accommodate changes.
Independent workers are not alone. There are ways to find advice, assistance and information.
• The Freelancers Union, a nonprofit founded in 2003, provides advocacy and advice on a range of issues, including financial and insurance matters.
• The consumer finance site NerdWallet has a helpful article that provides a good background on what independent workers need to think about in terms of taxes, insurance and retirement.
• Issues surrounding the gig economy are becoming more critical as a larger share of the workforce gets involved. If you want to keep up, the Workable Futures Initiative has done some significant research on this topic.
• And my colleague Noam Scheiber, who covers labor for The Times, has taken some close looks at how Uber incentivizes drivers and the world of at-home customer service workers. For people looking to get into this kind of work, both are worth reading.
A Final Word
A simple theme runs through much of this guide: Pay attention to your career.
Simple, but not so easy to follow, because we tend to confuse jobs and careers. Jobs demand so much of our time. But jobs are temporary, and are almost always in service of someone (or something) else. But your career belongs to you alone, to nurture, steer, imagine and reimagine. No one else can do it for you. Find the time to show your career some love. It’ll be time well spent.