Friday, December 26, 2008

Someday we'll all be contingent

At the risk of starting a self-referential loop that will bring down the entire Internet, I'm going to take the chance of linking to a Citizen Carrie post from Monday that refers to a post of mine. Without going into the substance of mine again (I have one coming on that), I urge you to read hers for a different slant on the employment picture. There are actually two or three threads here, but I start with a quote:
I hope that no one in this country is still thinking that income for typical workers will continue to rise throughout their careers. It's more realistic to live on a total austerity budget during your peak earning years so you'll have enough money saved away to get you through your remaining forty or fifty years. The big gamble, and I wish we all had crystal balls, is trying to figure out if paying for expensive continuing education will be worth it given the fact that you could be starting your downward salary trajectory at any given time. (For example, is it worth it for 35-year old engineers to get MBA's?)
When I worked at a well-known research institution, I saw a graph of average salaries for their engineers. It rose quite quickly over the first ten years, then flattened out, which was explained to me as a combination of two factors: there tends to be a lot of learning in that time, whether in-company (and it had enviable training at that time) or through the accretion of additional degrees; and there was a desire to cement in those workers, to get their salaries high enough by the age of 30-35 that they wouldn't want to leave. We're not talking about the Dark Ages here, this was less than 20 years ago, but I'm guessing that neither of those factors carries much weight now, and that the curve would be far less smooth.

The point is, if you continued to get education, you saw an immediate boost in your compensation, at least up to a certain age. It probably wasn't a perfect system in that it offered very little incentive for a 45-year-old to go out and get another degree, but chances were the company preferred that, because that worker was already in the position (with 20 years experience) where he or she was "most needed."

The world has certainly changed, and a lot more of this has been pushed back on the worker. Carrie's question as to the worth of the MBA at a certain point in life is not one that people had to answer before. If you were an engineer but wanted to pursue management, of course you got that MBA. Otherwise, you received additional training in engineering to keep your skills sharp. Now, you have to calculate at every turn what your opportunities are today, might be five years from now, ten years from now, and so forth, then try to make a cost-effective decision (taking into consideration all the relevant tradeoffs). Some people probably find that exciting, but it just doesn't feel like the way to run a reasonably stable society.

Carrie then changes gears a little and contemplates the possibility that, given the reluctance of more and more companies to offer health insurance (particularly those small businesses that Republicans get so rhapsodic over), perhaps we would be better served by a combination of part-time jobs. Personally, I find that idea pretty monstrous, but, anyway, Carrie goes through the implications. To me, this conjures up visions of this vast nomadic, contingent workforce, serving at the whim of whatever corporate master happens to own the company this week. The societal implications seem huge, but it is late and I do not wish to think about this anymore tonight.

No comments:

Clicky Web Analytics