It’s 1955 and you’re sitting down to your first day on the job, say as a junior accountant at a Midwestern firm. There’s no laptop or mouse on your desk, just mechanical pencils, a calendar planner and a rotary telephone. There’s no performance plan, no S.M.A.R.T. goals to write and no HR department — just a few clerical employees who work in “Personnel.” Instead of a day-long training PowerPoint, your boss takes you to lunch at an oak-paneled steak house and explains how, if you work hard and learn the ropes, the company will take care of you.
And that’s it. His word is as good as any contract. Five or six years later when an assistant director job opens up, there’s no external posting online, no internal interview, no on-boarding or ramp-up time, no question that a restructuring will suddenly demote you rather than promote you.
You’re just given the job.
There were flaws with this system, which mainly worked on behalf of white men, but it’s evident that the system that replaced it has left nearly as many Americans behind as the old one did.
In The Tumbleweed Society, a new book about the culture of job insecurity, sociology professor Allison Pugh writes of a time when some men “worked for the same firms for 20 years or more, anchored by a social contract in which, in return for employee loyalty and adequate performance, employers owed security, opportunities for training and advancement and benefits.”
Today, no company and no boss can promise you that sort of “social contract.” Your friends all have horror stories about pay cuts, pay freezes, hiring freezes, mergers, outsourcing, downsizing, restructuring, reductions in force and dead-end jobs. Your own trust is betrayed the day a new position is created above you, with a higher pay scale, for which you are not invited to apply. But you are relentless, and you can work to build your “personal brand” and network and study the reviews of competitors on Glassdoor. And when you eventually decide to leave the company in search of more money elsewhere, you will not be alone.
Workers of all stripes continually cite “lack of career growth opportunities” as a top reason why they leave their current job and “prospect of career growth opportunities” as a factor in taking a new job. That reality was made abundantly clear to me after I received my first promotion while working in the marketing department at Columbia University Press. The new job included a new office with a door and a nice view of Columbus Avenue but no salary increase. To move up (in pay, at least), I had to move out.
Everyone else seemed to know this simple truth. Unbeknownst to me, the whole building was full of people continually updating their resumes, checking their 401K balances, waiting for a position at a rival company to open up. These, and many more precarious tensions, have contributed to the death of what was once known as a “company culture.” Nearly everyone was working in a permanent state of job insecurity. One merger, one reduction in force or one bad boss can easily spin your career off into the nether zone of long-term unemployment and desperate freelancing.
The erosion in trust and mutual respect between employer and employee means that working people have grown ruthless, too. “It pays better to have loyalty to one’s self and take the best position, wherever it may be,” says publishing executive Amber Pearce. She applied for a higher position when she was working in editorial at Pearson, but when that job posting was later cancelled, she decided to leave for a better gig at a rival publishing house.
Kathryn Rogers worked as an editor at Harcourt for 13 years before she was laid off after a merger. She says she often heard people at work “say things like, ‘We’re a family here.’ But I never would have said that,” she observes coolly. “I’m not sure I would expect or particularly recommend loyalty in a business relationship — when either party feels that severing the relationship would be beneficial, it makes sense for them to do so. I do feel personal loyalty to friends I made and I’m proud of the work I did there, but I did not feel betrayed when they laid me off. It’s all business.”
In my whole career I’ve seen perhaps two people survive layoffs and actually get promoted up through the ranks and climb the corporate ladder at a single company. Though my personal experience has been limited to publishing, the conditions are similar in other fields, including academia, tech and advertising.
When Ehren Seeland quit her job as a university recruiter, she not only quit the office life and turned self-employed, she took the skills she’d acquired on the job and moved to Oaxaca, Mexico. “I feel that if you have good people on board, it’s crucial to provide incentive for them to stay, beyond just a steady paycheck, or in the case of the university, a pension. I think that’s simply not enough for many people — it isn’t for me.” Like many others, she sees employers moving to a more flexible working environment, but, she says, “I prefer to be self-employed now. I want my hours to be my own, as much as they can be, so I made a conscious choice to move out of office life altogether.”
That’s one way out of the move-out-to-move-up race, one that likely isn’t captured by demographers or unemployment statistics. So while the way to the top might be to eternally search for greener corporate pastures, Ehren doesn’t think so. “I don’t plan to go back to office life, and Oaxaca will be my home for some time to come.”
Matt Bucher is a writer and editor living in Austin, Texas.