What makes a career activist?
What distinguishes such a person from other working men and women? And just as important, how is the way a career activist manages their own work experience in the 21st Century different from the way that employers managed the careers of their employees in the 20th Century?
Over the next four weeks, I’ll answer those questions with a series of posts on the four cultural values of a career activist. These values form the ethos—the culture—of career activism, one that both acknowledges and leverages the realities of the modern American workplace. They are not simply a reassembled set of old values, but rather an entirely new way of looking at the purpose of and possibilities in a person’s work and employment.
The first of these values is a new strategic imperative. For many American workers, the 20th Century solution to managing their own career was collective action. Their strategic imperative was to achieve and maintain job security. Raised with the distinctive individualism and self-reliance of the American culture, they were fully prepared for career activism. They turned, instead, to the groupism and dependence that characterized membership in the two oppositional factions of American business. They either joined a union and relied on collective bargaining to protect their careers or they joined a corporate tribe and looked to their employer for continued employment.
Whether they wore blue collars or white collars or no collar at all, millions of Americans thought union membership was the best way to reach for and grab hold of the American Dream. Office workers in the federal government, house painters in Georgia, sanitation workers in Los Angeles, automotive workers in Detroit, and teachers in New York City all decided that union regulations and rules would give them a career they could count on and an employment experience that was fair and reasonable.
Similarly, millions of other Americans chose to become a corporate man or, later in the century, a corporate woman. They sought employment with IBM and General Motors, with Wells Fargo and AT&T and proudly wore their logos on baseball hats and sweaters. Without once wincing at the term, they bought athletic gear that proclaimed they were “The Property of” this company or that. And in one key respect, at least, that statement was true. Their employers oversaw the direction, pace and ultimate apex of their careers. No matter what they did or how they did it, it was the company’s financial interests which determined their employment experience.
Career activists, in contrast, believe groupism and dependence haven’t worked and won’t. They look at the inability of unions to preserve jobs and the propensity of employers to cut them, and conclude there is a better way. They are convinced that successful career management in the 21st Century is best achieved by going back to their American roots, by returning to core American values. For a career activist, the path to self-preservation and prosperity isn’t plural action; it’s individual action. And the strategic imperative isn’t job security; it’s “career security.”
The Quest for Career Security
Career activists reject the notion that a union or a corporation or any other employer can take care of a person’s career for them. However well meaning those external entities may be, they lack a detailed knowledge of each individual’s aspirations and evolving capabilities at work. And without that insight, they simply cannot do what’s best for each person. In the case of a union, that means they devolve to the fatal common denominator in a modern economy and do what’s best for the average person in the group. And in the case of an employer, they have, as Milton Friedman confirmed, a higher obligation to serve their shareholders, so they do what’s best for the company’s bottom line.
Given those realities, career activists believe that only the individual, him or herself, can do what’s best for them. Only they have the intimate knowledge of their own talent and how they would be best served using it in the world of work. Only they have the undivided and unflinching commitment to their own version of the American Dream and to the kind of employment that will advance them toward its achievement.
Managing one’s own career, therefore, is an act of self-respect—a declaration of a person’s right to meaningful and rewarding work. It is also, however, their acknowledgement of an important responsibility. Career activists take charge of their careers because they believe that such personal involvement is the way the rights of full equality in the workplace are earned. And as with other aspects of American citizenship, that responsibility is nontransferable. It cannot be outsourced to a union, to an employer, to a boss or mentor, or to one’s parents or business contacts. Career self-management is something only the individual can do, and they must, if they expect to achieve career security.
That form of security creates a new defensive posture for career activists. It empowers them to practice martial arts in their career. They can safeguard their future without having to depend upon an outside agent. They are able to tackle workplace challenges and deflect economic jolts on their own. They can employ the force of their own inherent capability to protect themselves. And, they don’t have to be Jackie Chan to do so.
The job security promised by unions and employers was always a hollow form of protection. Unions demanded it and employers offered it when times were good—when security wasn’t needed—and abandoned or denied it when times were bad—when employees were desperate to have it. It may have been codified in union contracts or promised by employers, but workers relied on it at their own peril. Nobody expected a job for life, but they did expect 10 years or 20 years of loyal service with an organization to count for something. The Great Recession proved it didn’t.
Career security, in contrast, is a much more realistic form of protection. It does not guarantee that a person will always be employed in any one job or for any one employer. Career security does, however, provide them with an employment guarantee. And, that guarantee is both durable and dependable. It ensures that a person will always be able to find work and to do so in a job of their choosing.
While job security is a “benefit” unions can only negotiate and only employers can offer; career security is a state of being that the individual creates for him or herself. They don’t have to rely on the bargaining skills of some union lawyer or the quality of leadership in the organization for which they work. They depend, instead, on themselves to direct their career toward experiences and goals that will reinforce and extend their talent. And, it is that well-honed capability—their own capacity for excellence—which protects them in the workplace. They are so good at what they do that anything bad can be overcome or avoided altogether.
Thanks for reading,
Note: The above post was drawn in part from my new book, The Career Activist Republic. To read more, get the book at Amazon.com, in many bookstores and on Weddles.com.