I had an interesting conversation today with a few friends about the exodus of young people from the workplace back to school during this recession. It seems as though people in Generation Y are bailing left and right on current jobs and diving back under the safe covers of academia. And who can blame them? You get to work on interesting research (hopefully), you get a stipend (maybe) and you have better prospects when you’re all done (eh, doubtful). But that leads me to ask, “Who’s going to do all the work when the economy is in full swing again?” Let’s survey the current demographics, starting from the top:
- The bosses — Not to sound deriding, but they aren’t doing the type of work I’m talking about here. The never have and never will…mostly because they actually have better things to do. For real. They have to meet with other big wigs and figure out where to steer the company and where the market is going and hopefully how to react in time. The work I talk about is more a “down-in-the-trenches” kind of work and I never really expected them to do that kind of work, just thought it was necessary to actually start at the top.
- The elders — The elders are those who aren’t necessarily in charge but those that have been around for a long time and really understand how a company or industry works. They won’t be doing the work when the economy recovers…because they’ll be retiring. Think about it. How many people were likely planning on retiring in 2008 onwards who suddenly saw their investments vaporize? No, they decided they better stick it out. And though they won’t see a huge return to the days where their portfolios were bulging, I would venture a guess that if the conditions are good enough and they feel that they can squeak by on portfolio growth after they retire, a lot will take the out. If you’re pushing into your 70s, I’m guessing you’re ready for a break. Even if they stay on part time, they won’t be doing the grunt work.
- The smart ones — The smart ones are those that drive ideas and new products. Even though they may have been around and producing good work for a while, they aren’t allowed to go anywhere. They are the geese with the golden eggs. Where would they go anyway? The people in charge of promoting them would have to replace themselves. Not likely. So they will have to do some work still, but you can probably watch for this group eying the social security line on their weekly pay stub longingly and starting to stick a pinky toe out the door. If you’re looking for a technical mentor, get ’em before they’re gone.
- The middle — The middle is all those people that were doing the grunt work 20 years ago and did a good job. They may have run out of salary headroom and jumped over to management or maybe they needed a new challenge (I can only imagine dealing with engineers or other similar underlings from a management perspective every day). Either way, there’s little likelihood they’re planning on stepping back into lesser roles. No, they have their eyes on the upper management jobs of the elders and the other aging boomers.
- The lazy ones — They were the ones on the team that did work every once in a while but in general only contributed when the workload really picked up. They were the auxiliary fuel tank of your company as an airplane–useful when you need it but really just weighing things down when not in use. And although we know it’s not really true, we have an inkling some of them got the ax when it fell last year. Even if you were deluded enough to believe that all the dead weight in your company was gone, the ones in this category that aren’t gone are really good at two things: not doing work and looking like they are. Count them out.
- The young upstarts — This group has a shot at doing some of the beefy work. In fact, this group has the highest likelihood of doing the majority of the work. I should mention I also feel as though I am a part of this group and therefore have a lot of interest in studying it. “What’s that?? Jim, Allison and Mark are all going back to school? Why? Trudy is going too? What the heck? Who’s going to do their work?!?”, you say (the answer: whoever is asking that question). This newfound love of the classroom is the other reason I am interested in my own demographic. We’re all jumping ship hoping to leapfrog into the next part of our career! There doesn’t seem to be any paying of dues, does there? Welp, that’s because there isn’t. But you can’t do anything about it because everyone in this demographic is back in classes learning about managerial accounting or tort law and not actually doing any work. Now the real question: when everyone pops out of school at the end of the recession, who will be better prepared? MBA Marty or Experienced Eddy? I’d be inclined to say the second, but again, I’m biased here. If you’re in this group and not going back to school, expect more work coming your way. Lawyer Larry is busy studying.
- The new grads — Quick! We’re running out of people that have any interest in engineering and menial tasks! Get me some workers! “Waaaaaait a second,” says Bob the manager. “All we’ve got is the new grads. There’s no way I’m hiring them without any experience.” Well Bob, too bad, you’re running out of options. Just hire these new kids and try and push them to learn faster and work harder. And do this even though those new grads have higher expectations of what employers will give them and the hours they are asked to work. You’ll probably end up giving it to them too, because what other options do you have?
- The overseas workers — Well, there’s your answer. It’s really been more of a circular process, figuring out who will be doing all the work. Think about what’s been said and how people have reacted. “Foreign labor is taking all of our jobs!”, the workers said at the beginning. Then they thought, “Oh! I better go back to school and learn how to manage people overseas and the remaining labor in the US!”. Then they get out of school three years later, lobby for a shiny new management position and ask “Ok, where are my underlings? Hunh? No underlings?!? Well crap, hire more foreign workers, we need to get this project out the door!”. Lather, rinse, repeat.
I want to be clear about a few things. First, I don’t disagree with going back to school. I plan on doing it myself some day, in some capacity. I just disagree with the timing. I liken going back now to pulling all your investments out of the market at the lowest point back in March (maybe to pay for school?). You remove yourself from the market at a time when the most growth can occur. You remove yourself from situations that include working long hours on hard work but it’s with a team that affords you more responsibilities. I feel that the next few years will provide some great opportunities for innovation and growth in certain positions and companies. Second, I realize that some people are going back to revamp skills, especially when they feel that they cannot find employment. This is understandable and expected based on enrollment numbers from past recessions. I would only remind these people to remember to keep up their real-world skills so they can be hired right out of school. Academia doesn’t have room to hold onto you and they have a similar hierarchy as above except for one catch: those tenured professors don’t plan on giving up their cushy position until they are forced to or decide to leave on their own. If you do choose the academic track, get a comfy couch to wait/sleep/eat/live on. Finally, I’d like to speak to my targeting of MBA and Law degrees. It’s not that I think they aren’t important, because I feel that a lot of really important concepts are taught in both management and law classes. I mostly take offense to the idea of you being my boss in 5 years because of a piece of paper. I respect the people around me who are working hard and have better vision than I do to tell me what to do. If you plan on “managing” me without first working by my side or in a similar position, expect to work extra hard to gain my respect.
I believe the solution here is what a lot of people are actually doing: sitting tight and getting some work done. You need to continue to show your company you are a valuable and contributing member while maintaining boundaries on how many peoples’ work you are willing to do. It sometimes seems bleak when you see others stagnating in their career progression right in front of or next to you. However, I believe hard work and tangible results will be the true indicator or advancement and success whenever the economy rebounds. If you think your hard work should go towards a more noble cause, strike out on your own. If companies end up short on talent when the economy comes back, a savvy consultant could be flexible and fluid enough to be exactly the solution customers and companies are looking for.
What about you? What category do you feel like you fall into? Take the poll below or leave a note in the comments!