What does a career mean, now?

My father was in a single job all his career. He was in a bank, and such single-job careers were very common during his time. People usually aspired for such jobs, in banks or in the Government (banks were nationalized too, incidentally).

When private jobs became more common and normal, mostly post-Liberalization, many of us still aimed for the kind of stability a single job offered. A lot of early IT jobs offer examples of this idea. Since I joined my first job in the late 90s, I have heard a lot of people trying to stay on in whatever job they were in, private or Government, for as long as possible. The entire system incentivized longer stays. And on the contrary, shorter stints were frowned upon as a sign of being flippant, or not being loyal/dedicated.

I have also heard of other, related quips – for instance, Oracle India (among a handful of other companies), with its many employee-friendly policies, was usually seen as a company-for-life!

Then, the whole employment scene flipped completely – Government jobs were not seen as being attractive or interesting enough, and private jobs became the default option. In fact, a ‘job’, by definition, these days, is assumed to be in the private sector. This is very unlike the 70s or 80s, where the default assumption was a Government job. The opening up of the economy ushered in a dramatic change, no doubt.

But, the remnants of the older era stayed for a long time. Movement between jobs was still frowned upon, but the stints got shorter. If someone spent 5-10 years in a job, that was considered respectable from the perspective of evaluating their dedication to a job.

That eventually evolved – even having one so-called ‘solid’ stint (anything from 5+ years) was considered respectable. I have been in eight jobs (companies) in my 20+ year full-time employment career and two of them were 5+ year stints.

Then, there came wider acceptability of the shorter stints – the five became 2-3 years! So seeing a CV with multiple 2-3 year stints, that was initially frowned upon, became a norm and was not seen as a disadvantage anymore. In fact, those were the only kinds of CVs in the industry now! Longer stints seem rarer and that contributes to more people looking for more stints! The longer stints started to worry people that they may be seen as outdated… like those who are unable to get any other jobs outside their companies and that they remain in their jobs longer than 2-3 years because of their inability to get better/other jobs, and not because they are uninterested to shift/content in their current jobs!

The next step in this evolution is the gig working scene that twists every earlier notion of a career completely out of context! It may be happening in select industry categories (IT, for instance) and sectors (blue-collar gig work in platform economy companies), but it is here and is likely to get more prevalent in the coming years.

So what does a career even mean now? It started by meaning ‘being in one job all your life’, to 2-3 related jobs (in the same industry) in one career… to something completely different now. From having fewer jobs than people, we now have more jobs than people but not all of them seem attractive enough from multiple parameters (salary, benefits, etc.) or appropriate enough (lack of specific skills sought for jobs).

Even if the numbers are less overall, people are choosing shorter work assignments instead of full-time jobs – a ‘contract’ job was a strict no-no a decade ago, but now, almost all job portals include a search option for such assignments that don’t even last a year (an earlier benchmark for ‘steadiness’)!

From defining who you are as an individual and defining your position in society, a career is moving towards merely defining your ability to fend for yourself (and your family) with a decent/respectable lifestyle.

The other movements in the economy seem to supplement this idea – from owning assets and things that you need… to leasing/renting the same things… to now subscribing to them, including cars and bikes. The commitment is progressively reducing, as also ownership interest.

In a way, employers ‘owned’ their employees earlier when long stints were the norm. That long-term commitment worked both ways – employees demonstrated loyalty and employers, in turn, took care of loyal employees.

Now, companies seem to be subscribing to employees under the gig economy! The common thread on both sides is the lack of long-term commitment and the definition of ‘long-term’ that has steadily evolved too.

This trend, where employers too display the same sentiment as consumers, when it comes to ownership and commitment, towards employees, disproportionately affects blue-collar workers more than white-collar jobs. The latter may have built, owing to privilege and/or education, a moat of social and economic security owing to upward mobility offered by the white-collar career, but the blue-collar workers, who look up to employers for both social and economic security, are forced to choose the gig economy stint because it offers the fastest path to an income… some income. And such jobs demand relatively fewer skills but are high on repetitive tasks and effort (delivery people, cab drivers, and so on). So, even if most platform economy companies profess that they create employment, it may not be seen as a sustainable livelihood by the gig workers themselves while they get stuck in the rut of unending work schedules.

In a way, the recent ad campaigns by companies like Zomato (in India) and Uber (in the UK), seem geared to convince people (us, the consumers) that the gig workers who chose them are genuinely interested in those gigs and are being adequately taken care of (after a lot of pounding by lawmakers across the world). And this may not be true in the real sense.

In a scenario like this, across both blue and white-collared jobs, where employers seem to be subscribing to workers/employees, what does a career mean anymore? And, as a result, where should our sense of self in a society/community stem from, if ’employment’ has evolved and is no longer the anchor for that feeling?

In a severely ironic way, the dictionary meaning of the word ‘career’ offers a terrific dichotomy!

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