Welcome To Your New Midlife Crisis

This post was first published in CareerRealism.com

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The classic midlife crisis was always associated with success: the sports car, the fancy clothes, the inappropriate girlfriend, but not anymore. That’s so Mad Men. Today’s midlife crisis involves getting laid off at age 46 and having your well-meaning friends suggest that you get a pink Lyft moustache for your aging, still-not-paid-off car as a way to earn gas money.

Why does the Don Draper midlife crisis seem so ironic and dated? It appears laughable today because American midlife and mid-career have changed so radically in the last few years that it’s darkly amusing to think of what might have been for us. I’m not endorsing inappropriate behavior. I’m just pointing out that, until perhaps ten years ago, the achievable ideal of midlife and mid-career for most educated Americans was one of privilege, success, and affluence. If you wanted it and worked hard for it, you got it. You got the job, the salary, the benefits, the long-term employment commitment, all of the goodies. Not today. Not by a long shot.

What happened? How did the mid-career success that looked so attainable when we were in our 20s become such an illusory mirage, a mean-spirited joke that is hammering our generation into a place of fear and stress? A lot has happened, it turns out, much of which probably could not have been avoided or predicted. But, it happened nonetheless. The Cold War ended. The rise of China happened. The Internet happened. The tech wreck of 2002 happened. The financial crisis of 2008 happened. The breakdown in corporate governance happened.

If I had told you, in 1989, that over the next 25 years, China would overtake Japan as the world’s second largest economy, the USSR would disintegrate – causing a big reduction in the well-paying defense industry, that new technologies would enable real time white and blue collar collaboration anywhere in the world – enabling a vast shrinkage of the American employment base, that financial disruptions would flatten retirement savings schemes twice, that CEOs would face virtually no accountability or consequences for bad decisions and be able to enrich themselves dramatically without any reciprocal loyalty to employees – you would have thought I was either crazy or exaggerating. But, that’s essentially what’s happened.

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That’s the bad part of our new midlife crisis. It was forced on us. At least in the Don Draper days, if you wanted to act out, you had the freedom of choice. Skipping today’s crisis is not an option. It’s a very disempowering notion, disturbing perhaps, but think about it: Am I wrong? Surely, the reality is somewhat different for each of us. (I know. Stop calling me “Shirley.”) It’s not as if every American over 40 is desperate and in trouble.

However, I think most people would agree that the risks of career instability and financial reversals are far greater than they were a generation ago, that the potential to get and hold onto a long-term high earning position have been significantly degraded. How secure do you feel about retirement? If you’re not worried, you’re not really paying enough attention.

We’ve been disempowered as a generation. This is troubling. Yet, we do not need to be victims. I truly believe that we can achieve financial security, success, and satisfaction with our working lives. To get there, though, we need to rethink what it means to work. Getting empowered means discovering where we add value in the business world and executing a personal strategy for extracting that value from corporations.

In a lot of cases, this is not going to involve having an actual salary-paying job. Jobs these days for people over forty are a bit harder to find than they used to be and their long term prospects are not as secure as anything we might have imagined a generation ago.

I think self-employment is going to be our ticket out of midlife disempowerment, out of our unwanted midlife crisis. What does self-employment look like for you? You have more options than you realize. Maybe the whole idea frightens you to death. I understand. But, if you look at the alternatives, the idea of supporting yourself through your own initiative and value creation might start to look at lot more appetizing. Are you ready to empower yourself in midlife? Let’s start the journey.

Read more at CareerRealism.com

Your Career Began at Gettysburg and Antietam

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First published in Business2Community

It’s a joke many mid-career professionals have made. You’re talking to someone younger in the workplace and you say something like, “Well, back when I started in the business, around the time of the Civil War, we did it like this…” And then everyone laughs, partly because it’s funny and partly because you really are getting old, in office terms. But, it’s truer than we may realize. In a lot of profound ways, our careers did start in the Civil War and it’s really not a laughing matter.

The effects of the past on our thinking about career have been on my mind recently. My father turned 90 last month, almost the same day as the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I. WWI seems so remote in time, a relic of another era. Yet, it wasn’t all that long ago. I can remember seeing WWI veterans marching in Memorial Day parades when I was a kid. My father grew up watching Civil War veterans march. That distant war was very much part of current memory when my father was a child in the 1920s and 1930s. Its veterans are all gone now, but what hasn’t gone is the way that those men thought about working and jobs.

The large, modern corporation sprang to life in the post-Civil War era as new technologies such as telephones and railroads made possible enormous, distributed workforces pulling together to achieve unified goals. Before that time, businesses tended to be smaller. There were long-term employer/employee relationships, but things were a little less structured. There was certainly a lot less labor organization and virtually no government regulations about work. This is a simplistic view, of course, but it is correct enough for us to understand the impact that it had on our parents and grandparents – the people who shaped our sense of what it meant to have a job.

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The era of industrialization paved the way for the classic American career ideal: You devote yourself to a single career and ideally one corporation for life. You gave your best efforts to them and they, in turn, were loyal to you. After 30 or 40 years, you retired on a pension that they provided and lived out your golden years in comfort. This idea was built into much of the thinking that our parents, mentors, and teachers shared with us about what it meant to be an adult. A lot of our mindset about career was shaped by thinking that came into vogue before the invention of the automobile. Everyone who raised my father was born in the 1880s. He had a big impact on my thinking about career. Can you see how most of us are all products of 19th century minds?

We need to face the reality that our thinking about work and career was influenced by ideas that are at least 100 years old. But, the world has change don us, radically and quickly. The whole job-for-life ideal began to die in America in the 1980s. By the turn of the century, the paradigm was almost completely dead. In a few short years, almost all of the 19th and early 20th century American assumptions about work and career that influenced our generation have vanished. Today, you get a job that lasts until the employer decides to reorganize or lay workers off to add a few pennies to the quarterly earnings per share. Carrying on with a 19th century frame of reference in this era isn’t going to cut it.

If you’re over 40 today, you are unlikely to find a job that will carry you until retirement. That’s just reality today. There are many solutions to this problem, but the first step in addressing what’s going on is to understand how we are under the sway of ideas that are from the wrong century. It’s 2014 but we’re still in 1914, or 1864.

You Don’t Need a Job

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First published in Business2Community.com

A friend approaching his 60th birthday recently asked me to look at his resume. It was a fine resume, and I helped him make it even better. Part of me wondered, though, why he was going to all the effort. I have a suspicion that he will face a great deal of difficulty finding a job. Certainly, trying to go in through front door, applying for jobs online and talking to recruiters will be a frustrating experience for him. But, I am not worried about him. He will find work.

You Don’t Need a Job image boss1 200x300Do we need jobs or do we need work? That is a question that may define the mid and late career stages of many Americans in the years to come. We were raised to think that a steady job with a stable employer was the ideal career scenario. That may have been true once, but it is largely irrelevant today. Reid Hoffman, CEO of LinkedIn, writing with Ben Casnocha, and Chris Yeh in Harvard Business Review described the new reality well, saying, “Then came globalization and the Information Age. Stability gave way to rapid, unpredictable change. Adaptability and entrepreneurship became key to achieving and sustaining success. These changes demolished the traditional employer-employee compact and its accompanying career escalator in the U.S. private sector; they are in varying degrees of disarray elsewhere.”

Hoffman goes on to suggest that the new employment model should be one where a company hires you for a limited “Tour of Duty” and allows you to show how your perform in order to earn another tour of duty. That’s a pretty harsh universe to work in. Every day at the office will be a gladiatorial contest to see who will leave the building with a job tomorrow. But it’s pretty honest about where most American companies are coming from today. It’s time we all got the memo: You have no right to keep a job any longer than the employer profits from your efforts. (Or, that the employer perceives that it profits from your efforts, which is subjective and unfair but utterly real.)

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It’s tempting to bemoan the loss of employer loyalty but the truth is that the long-term tenures at single companies were a recent phenomenon. The steady job at a big company really only emerged in the US after the Civil War, when industrialization and railroads made it profitable to hire large numbers of people in structured, long-lasting careers. This went on until about 1970, when it began to unravel. By the 1980s, the long-term American job had basically died, though it would take another decade or two for people to see fully what was going on.

Where does leave my friend, as well as the rest of us? I say that we are all in great shape, believe it or not. We don’t need jobs. We need work. And there is plenty of work available – It’s just not in the format that we are expecting. Those of us in mid-career can demand good money for our valuable skills. Contract-based employment, entrepreneurship, self-employment, “gig” economy work – these are all ways to earn a living from work, only without a job.

What is a job anyway? A job is a market/legal structure that serves the needs of both employer and employee. You have skills that your employer can profit from. You need income. The job is a way for the employer to give you some stability with regular salary and benefits while capturing a greater share of your value to the business. Think of it like this: You might be worth $200,000 in profits to a business. If you charged the business $200,000 they would make no money. To make money off of you, the employer pays you, say, $70,000 and keeps $130,000 for itself. The employer is justified in doing this because it is absorbing a risk on your behalf. There may be months where the employer makes no money off of you but still pays you. It is advancing you money in regular salary payments in exchange for the right to earn $130,000 from your work.

If the employer is no longer offering a job, it can still profit from your work. However, the formula needs to change. If you are independent, you should charge them $100,000 for your services. They will make less money from you but they will be taking a lot less risk. You, on the other hand, will be absorbing the cash flow risk and living with some uncertainty. As a result, you deserve a higher payment. But, the formula works. In simple terms, this is the difference between a contractor and an employee.

For my friend, I would say he needs to find work, but he shouldn’t fret about not getting a regular job. There’s a lot of work out there for him.

The Real Reason We Loved Breaking Bad Read

First published in Business2Community.com

breaking.badAmericans love their bad boys. In the last few years, television audiences have swooned over Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire, Weeds, and Orange is the New Black – shows that elevate and celebrate anti-social behavior. One could argue that we love these shows because they are well done and great entertainment. That’s surely true, but the real reason we feel such a strong attachment to violent anti-heroes is much deeper rooted. It’s driven by what’s happening in America today.

We are living in an era of epic disempowerment. Ordinary Americans are outflanked and outgunned, in economic terms, in ways that we haven’t witnessed in over a century. The future looks bleak, so we find affinity with thieving, charming sociopaths. They at least know how to get what they need.
In contrast, Americans are frightened and angry. Maureen Dowd commented about this phenomenon in The New York Times, citing Andrew Kohut of Gallup and the Pew Research Center, who called the mood of America “chronic disillusionment.” Dowd said, “The old verities seem quaint. If you work hard and play by the rules, you’ll lose out to those guys who can wire computers to make bets on Wall Street faster than the next guy to become instant multimillionaires.”

Dowd is halfway to the truth. Today, if we work hard and play by the rules, we face a greater chance of starving to death in the street than any generation in American history. Employer loyalty is gone. Employment is being outsourced and offshored in vast moves that have emptied the continent of viable industries. Midlife and late life layoffs are the norm. Pensions have been eliminated. Government retirement and health programs are targeted for eradication. Where does that leave the average American? All manner of fixes are in and they aren’t helping the majority of us. So, we fantasize about stealing from the greedy takers.

Shows like Breaking Bad are empowerment fantasies. They expose our anger and resentment at an economic system that no longer serves our interests. And, anti-social as they are, they actually present a solution. Tony Soprano and Walter White take responsibility for themselves and let little stand in the way of getting what they need in life. They are self-empowered in ways that most of us can only dream about. We don’t want to do what they do, but we want that kind of empowerment.

Our affection for Mad Men reveals the flip side of the same story. Outdated as the sexist, white-maleism of the show may seem, Mad Men takes us back to an earlier era when authority structures were easier to understand and the “work hard and play by the rules” ideal seemed more attainable. Americans today are panicking about their futures. Anti-heroic escapism and nostalgia for the bad/good old days of white male patriarchy are seductive, but they are not a solution. Only a genuine return to fairness and empowerment of working Americans will make a difference in this most difficult economic climate.

Midlife Empowerment: What the Income Inequality Debate is Really About

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First published in Business2Community.com

Hint: It’s not about money

Feelings run hot on both sides of the income inequality argument. Why, ask those of us who are struggling to thrive in a seemingly permanent recession, are a small group of people earning an annual sum that the rest of would consider being “set for life” if we had it on our bank accounts? If you’re feeling the pinch of being underemployed or at risk of losing everything, you might wonder why the CEO of a major bank got paid millions as his organization was under indictment for felony tax evasion. Most of us could live well on a multi-million dollar nest egg. He gets it for one year’s work at a company that is on the verge of collapsing due to its criminal behavior. Or, if you’re wondering how you’re going to afford $5 gas, you will probably feel offended that American’s top 25 hedge fund managers earned $21.5 billion in 2013, 50% more than the year before. It is maddening, but not for the reason that most people think.

People who earn very large incomes are quick to point out that their critics are simply envious and lazy – that they, the ones who earn piles of cash, actually work harder and want it more. This is not altogether wrong. Billionaire hedge fund managers and bigtime CEOs work very hard. Their success is typically the culmination of long, disciplined careers in stressful industries. So, why don’t people give them some credit for their successes instead deriding them and decrying the inequality that’s pervading the economy? I will offer an explanation. It’s not about inequality of income. Popular anger at income inequality is really anger about inequality of rights.

Pitting an “envious” public against “the rich” is the wrong argument to have about income inequality. The real source of Americans’ anger at rich elites has to do with the new, outrageous rights and entitlements of that group. What’s different today, compared to a generation ago, is a decline in accountability and consequences for those in a very narrow, select elite. Of course, the rich have always had special privileges, but things have gotten out of control. For instance, long ago Morgan and Stanley were two business partners. So were Goldman and Sachs. Their own fortunes were at risk if they made a mistake. Now, they are public companies. They take risks with shareholders’ money.
Despite irresponsible acts, the people at the top managed to earn vast sums while avoiding catastrophe only through the largesse of the American taxpayer during the financial crisis. This unfairness is the wellspring of resentment for those of us not invited to such a powerful clique.

Think of it like this: If you are a working American or small business owner, you live your life in what is known as reality. Let’s say you’re a teacher, a clerk, an office worker, manager, a nurse, or an engineer. If you make a mistake, you can lose your job. If you engage in criminal activities that bring in a serious federal investigation, you will get fired and may even go to jail. If you lose your job, you might lose your home. If you borrow too much money and can’t pay it back, you will have declare bankruptcy and suffer the consequences of having no credit. If you don’t save for retirement, you will be old and poor. Day-to-day, the lifestyle your parents had is growing further out of reach. You’re entitled to nothing, which is okay because none of us should have entitlements that we don’t earn. Yet, it’s a grinding journey to survival at the bottom.

If you’re a hedge fund manager or corporate CEO, life is different. You might take home over a billion dollars while negotiating a slap-on-the-wrist penalty for the felonious act of insider trading. That big salary is subject to a huge, unfair tax break that requires you to pay 15% “capital gains” tax on income that you earned by working at a job picking stocks with someone else’s money. If you earn $60,000 a year as a clerk working for this fund, you will pay 25% income tax on your salary. If you commit a felony while in its employ, you’re probably going to do time. The resentment of mega hedge fund owners is only partially because they’re rich and we’re poor. It’s due to their unearned, unfair privileges.

CEOs also enjoy the unequal entitlements that are the true drivers of the income inequality debate. If you’re a CEO, you are earning millions off the work of other people even if you lose money. If you’re right, you get rich. If you’re wrong, you still get rich. For people who feel disempowered in midlife, it’s maddening to see someone the same age enjoy such freedom from the consequences of bad decisions.

Americans are angry at income inequality not because someone else is richer than they are. They are angry because a select group has elevated itself into a consequence and accountability-free class. They are angry that a small group of people is using its wealth to pay for lobbyist to twist regulations in their favor, flood elections with dark cash to elect corrupt politicians who free them from facing justice, and rig a wide variety of markets so that they can enjoy a lifelong vacation from anything the reality that everyone else faces in life.

This privilege is unfair and, frankly, un-American. This country was not built by hedge funds and loser/bonus-hogging CEOs. It was built by people who worked hard and took risks knowing that they faced real consequences if they failed. America was made great by leaders who knew they were accountable for their mistakes.

It’s time to return to that America. It will not be a simple or short process, but the first step is to understand what’s truly happening. To put America back on track, and back to work, it is first necessary to understand why people are angry and work on solutions that bring balance and fairness back into the society and its government.

7 Steps to Thriving in the “New Normal”

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First published in Business2Community.com

What Will it Take to Get Where You Want to Be?

Let’s not sugar coat it, okay? Macro data aside, things are not great in the American economy right now, especially for people over 40. There are not as many good jobs for older workers. Careers are more tracked than ever, with hiring managers wanting people with a long history of perfecting a narrow discipline. What, you don’t have 15 years of sequential promotions in partner marketing? Good bye… Many skills that we once got recognized for doing well, such as being good on the phone, aren’t given much value these days. At the same time, new skills, some of them quite technical, are highly prized. Worst, though, is the apparent lack of employer loyalty. You’re a “human resource,” not a “human being.” When it suits the business, you’re gone. This is the “New Normal” of today’s job market.

But, let’s not get discouraged. The truth is, you can earn more money in your work life. (Notice I didn’t say “job” or even “career.”) You can earn more if you want to. You can earn more if you work on yourself. While the reality is that we are more or less on our own, we are not alone. Yes, we are all essentially self-employed, even if we have a job that pays us a salary. We work for ourselves. This can either be depressing or liberating. What will you choose it to be? In this post, I will share seven steps you can take to get yourself ready to thrive in the difficult new normal.

#1 Understand What’s Really Happening to You
You can’t solve a problem you can’t define. Every person’s situation is unique, a mix of workplace issues, personality, background, family, economic realities. There are many reasons that we may be under-earning our potential or struggling in our careers. However, in reality, there are two secret reasons why it’s happening:

1 – We’re in the wrong job/career/line of business. This may seem like a crazy idea but it is true for most of us. We struggle because we’re in the wrong job or industry. We’re in management when we should be in sales. We’re working with our minds when we should be working with your hands. We are working alone when we should be working with other people, and so on. We need to find the right fit for our best success.
2 – The approaches to career that worked before don’t work anymore. So many things have changed. The old wisdom about trying to find a steady job at a big company doesn’t hold up today. The idea that we need to prepare an amazing resume and submit it to as many jobs as possible is less and less relevant today. We need to adapt to the new way that things work.

#2 Embrace Setbacks
Failure can be a gift. Many successful people have made this point. If we are able to work on ourselves, we can learn a lot from a setback. It’s also important to give ourselves permission to feel bad about it. It’s going to hurt, but it’s an opportunity.

#3 Understand Your Leverage
We are only going to make decent money if our employer is profitable. This sounds pretty obvious but it’s incredible how often we fail to see this basic connection. How profitable is your employer? What is their outlook in their industry? What do you bring to the table? Your pay, and raise potential depends on three very important factors:
The profitability of your employer – are they making money? (Cash flow, not paper earnings.)
Your employer’s competitive advantage in its industry – can they sustain profits long -term and grow?
Your personal leverage against the employer – what makes it hard to replace you? That will drive your raise potential, assuming they have the money.

#4 Understand Your Behavior, Energy, and Attitude.
Your behavior. Your energy. Your attitude. These are affecting your work life and your earning potential. You may need to ask someone else to help you figure out how you really come across to others. Are you projecting negativity and hostility? These will negate your efforts to improve.

#5 Set a Goal: the True You.
There is a job or business that’s right for you. It’s where you will earn the most. It’s where you will be the happiest. It’s the True You.
What kind of salary and lifestyle do you want? (Think carefully)
Consider the tradeoffs: Life satisfaction vs. status and money – you may not be able to have it all.
What does You 2.0 look like?
Visualize it. Visualization leads to realization.
Marc Miller of Career Pivot has a great approach to thinking this through in Repurpose Your Career. I highly recommend it.

#6 Believe in Yourself
It’s going to take work. It’s going to take time, but, you can do it.
Find mentors – people who can help you do a better job and figure out your path. (It might be more than one person.)
Make intelligent mistakes – if you know where you’re heading, you can mess up and learn about yourself, improving your odds of success as you move forward.
Easier said than done: but switch off those old tapes.
Don’t worry about not being something that you’re not. You were NOT meant to be that person.

#7 Be a Part of Others’ Success
This is not about being altruistic. It’s a strategy to help yourself. Bank favors with others who can help you later. Engage in useful networking, where you can add real value to others’ businesses and careers. You will definitely see it come back to you in the form of job referrals and gigs. You can also learn valuable business skills and insights while you’re getting to know new people

Take the Free Course 7 Steps to Thriving in the “New Normal” now.