After nine years working for the same company, I suddenly found myself one day disillusioned with the traditional concept of career. I had earned a salary grade increase only to have it taken away due to a corporate business unit buyout. I don't like to admit it, but I was bitter and angry. I couldn't stomach the notion that my career had gone nowhere in almost 10 years of dedicated hard work.
I sit down now 14 years later to try to analyze why I had become so cynical about the entire concept of career. Perhaps my expectations were too high. Perhaps I bought into the idea of a career with one company. Perhaps I was blind to the changes going on in the corporate world around me. Or perhaps cynicism is part of the aging process. I do know that the concept of career as it existed in my mind when I started my career no longer exists. Here are 10 reality checks to help you get your expectations in line with the changes that have happened and are happening today.
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1: College will gain you entry
It used to be that a college degree was the ticket to a successful professional career and an above average salary. The reality is that not enough of those high-paying jobs exist for college graduates today and may not for quite some time. More people are graduating by percentage than ever, which means more competition for new IT openings. Wikipedia states that of the general U.S. population aged 25 and older, more than 52% have some college and 27.7% have a Bachelor's degree. You will still need a degree to be considered for most professional IT positions — it's just less certain now that the all-important diploma will be your ticket to the career of your dreams.
2: You will climb the career ladder
I once idealistically believed that sometime between my fifth and 10th year working for one company, I would receive my first promotion. My second promotion would come before my 20th year. It didn't work out that way. I had to change jobs to get my promotion — and changing jobs can sometimes be a risky proposition.
The recession has taken its toll. Millennials now expect fewer promotions. Also, the career path for software engineers, database administrators, and other IT specialists is limited at most companies that do not specialize in IT services. If you are a technician or specialist and ambitious and want to climb the corporate ladder in such a company, you may have to transition to a managerial position with a broader career path. It's not common to see a tech successfully make the transition to management but it can be done.
3: You will work for one company
Japan has traditionally been known for its employee/corporate loyalty. In a survey of young Japanese workers, 75% were willing to change jobs if something better came along. How times have changed. Even IBM, once well known for its policy of lifetime employment, has had to change its no-layoffs policy. According to the Employee Benefit Research Institute, fewer than 10% of all employees stay with a company for more than 20 years.
4: Your career will bring you happiness
Well, maybe. But current trends suggest that it is becoming harder than ever. Patrick Thibodeau notes that IT job satisfaction is at an all-time low. Those just beginning their career expecting to find happiness on the other side of their formal education may have unrealistic expectations.
The longer you work, the more certain it will be that you will find yourself unhappy on the job. Maybe it will be the boss who takes credit for your work, the fourth or fifth time you are overlooked for a promotion, the peer who stabs you in the back, or the manager you just can't work with. Unhappiness happens.
5: You will have one area of expertise
It is more likely than ever that your last job before retirement will be significantly different from the one you had at the beginning of your career. A remark by TechRepublic contributor Michael Kassner has stuck with me. He said he's had to reinvent himself many times during his career. He isn't alone. I and many Boomers have had to reinvent themselves as well.
6: You will retire with the highest salary
If you do have to reinvent yourself, you may be earning a salary more fitting a novice than an experienced professional. You could wind up being among the flotsam and jetsam discarded into the ranks of the unemployed, so you might make less money once you find gainful employment. Salary is not always a steady progression from low to high throughout your career.
7: Benefits will remain part of your pay package
An ever-growing list of benefits provided by corporations are being trimmed or cut outright: medical and dental insurance, pension plans, and matching funds for 401k contributions are good examples. You can no longer expect your company to provide for your needs beyond a basic salary.
8: You will be able to retire when you expected
The retirement age with full Social Security benefits hasn't changed much over the years. Retirement at a later age is a real possibility due to unfunded commitments to retirees. In France, a bill that increases the retirement age from 60 to 62 has led to millions taking to the streets in protest.
We are, after all, living longer on average than we did in 1960. Life expectancy in the United States has grown from 69.7 in 1960 to 77.5 years in 2003, so it is not entirely unreasonable that we should be expected to retire later. The current economic downturn hasn't helped, either. Many Boomers are facing the reality that retirement will come later than originally planned.
9: Your pension plan funds will be there for you when you retire
Ask a former Enron employee and you will likely hear a sad story of a "solid" company suddenly gone —and with it, the employee pension plan. Corporate bankruptcy isn't the only cause for concern about the viability of your pension plan. Tough economic times have left pension plans underfunded, bringing doubt as to whether Boomers will see their entire pension plan funds when they become eligible.
10: Social Security will be there for you as promised
I was told that Social Security was developed to protect the ignorant and financially inept masses from themselves. The common man just couldn't be trusted to save for his retirement. Regardless of whether that statement is true, the irony is that the FICA taxes collected over the years have already been spent by those clever politicians you and I sent and keep sending to Washington. How much, if any, will be available when each of us retires is unknown, but the trends point to a crisis in the making. The outlays were not expected to exceed money collected until 2016, but that is now expected to occur in 2010. In 1950, 16 workers paid in for every recipient. That is estimated to dwindle to two per recipient by 2030.
Yes, you will probably get something from Social Security. But don't count on it at age 62. And don't expect to receive the same estimated payment that is printed on the Social Security statement you receive each year from the Social Security Administration.
It's not just the U.S. government-funded retirement system that is in trouble, either. Except for Australia and Canada, many countries are facing problems funding their pension plans due to population aging and other challenges.
The bottom line
I have focused on a lot of negative changes. I would like to end with a few words of encouragement. Hang tough; the recession won't last forever. The knowledgeable, agile, and hard working can survive, even thrive, in today's ever-changing workplace and tough economic climate.Perhaps this infamous Chinese proverb says it best: "May you live in interesting times." My career was not what I expected, but it certainly wasn't boring. Are your career expectations in line with the new economic reality? Like me, you may be disappointed if they aren't.
Alan Norton began using PCs in 1981, when they were called microcomputers. He has worked at companies like Hughes Aircraft and CSC, where he developed client/server-based applications. Alan is currently semi-retired and starting a new career as a writer for TechRepublic.