It is often said that I lack subtlety and tact. I accept that. I’ve never been entirely sure whether this observation was intended as a compliment, criticism, or simple statement of fact.
Outside of boardroom presentations, I have seldom had to suppress the urge to punch people in the face quite so often as a recent visit to the town where I grew up.
The “good life“
This is a government town, where everyone makes a living out of the making, influencing or executing of governmental policy… or providing supporting services to those who do.
Disposable incomes are well above average.
The residents are generally well educated.
Career progression to middle management levels is based on time served as much as ability.
Much of the population live in reasonably large single occupancy housing and drive around in reasonably new cars.
Life is generally affluent and comfortable, with keeping up with the Joneses a favourite past time.
I spent much of a week catching up with old friends. It was great to hear about their victories, their future plans, and their complaints that the sporting teams of my youth still lose more games than they win (some things don’t change!).
Everyone is afraid
There was a recurring theme that I hadn’t observed on previous visits: fear.
Fear of the future. How will their state pensions and healthcare be funded? How will their private pensions be watered down or taxed to make up the shortfall?
Fear of automation. Robots and artificial intelligence are apparently going to take away all the jobs.
Fear of immigration. “Foreigners” willing to work for less money, driving down living standards.
Fear of outsourcing and offshoring. “Big business” was delivering lower quality (at lower cost) commodity services using resources who are willing to work longer hours for less money without the security blanket of permanent jobs, benefits, or pensions.
Generally just fear of the unknown.
Adapt or die
I was sympathetic to a point, I struggle with change as much as the next guy.
However change is one of the few certainties in life. You either evolve and survive, or you perish. My (mostly) successful old friends appeared to have been brainwashed by all the talkback radio shock jocks and fear-mongering politicians, forgetting this most fundamental law of nature: adapt or die!
As is my wont I attempted to “trust, but verify” what I was told.
Had I lucked into a safe stable profession early on, and obliviously coasted my way through all this apparent uncertainty that was plaguing my friends? Or had I, consciously or otherwise, tap danced and evolved my way through an ever-changing professional landscape?
Change is hard
I briefly replayed a few of the roles I performed early in my varied working life.
Lugging around vast bags full of newspapers and junk mail earned me the princely sum of $3.24 a week and Popeye-like forearms.
The change: websites, targetted internet advertising, and spam emails have largely rendered this profession structurally redundant.
Jumping on and off the back of a moving truck while carrying 12 glass bottles of milk was certainly exciting, but not a job anyone survived with knees and ankles intact for long.
The change: internet grocery deliveries by major supermarket chains have eliminated the profession.
Skilled lab technician
My career backup plan was over less than 10 years after it began.
The change: digital cameras killed off the local one-hour photo development industry. Smartphones killed off digital cameras.
An ancient that has continued largely unchanged since time began.
The change: health-conscious teetotal millennials, combined with big screen televisions and internet beer deliveries to the homes of their parents, is slowly but surely killing off the traditional pub. That said there will always be people who enjoy getting drunk, so there will always be work for this who want it.
A varied profession of many facets, many of which were neither client facing nor requiring imagination.
The change: practitioners of any profession that can be reduced to a script or repeatable set of decision statements are doomed. Software, automation and offshoring has greatly reduced (but not eliminated) the demand for number crunchers and Excel jockeys. There are always jobs for the “what do you want the answer to be?” style Management Accountants however!
The profession overall thrives, though the commodity nature of the work combined with the rapid pace of innovation has always required re-skilling every 2-3 years to remain relevant and employable.
The change: everybody rents or buys rather than develops bespoke software these days. Today project delivery risk is regularly shifted onto large consultancies, who employ vast armies of offshore resources to turn handles, simultaneously overcharging and underwhelming the client for solutions that seldom solve their problem. If you are a code monkey without any customer-facing elements to your role, and live in a high cost of living locale, then I wish you the very best of luck… you are going to need it.
I could go on, but by this point I had satisfied myself that there had been plenty of change.
Evolution or extinction
Yet here is the thing. Has anyone observed a vast spike in homelessness caused by all the paper boys, milkmen, and photo lab workers becoming structurally redundant? Me either. Most of them adapted and evolved, moving on to other professions that demanded willing and able workers.
Complaining that my decades-old visual basic programming skills or photo development knowledge are no longer relevant or in demand would be ridiculous.
Demanding that “they” (the government, society, whomever) should do something to resist or prevent change, protecting my antiquated skills and abilities to ensure I can continue to earn a decent living is nonsensical.
Yet that was the line of reasoning being advanced by many of my old friends, fanned by the media and politicians. There were seemingly endless calls to:
- protect farmers and dying country towns
- restore dying industries like car manufacturing or steel production.
- insisting that teaching or nursing roles are filled by local citizens, rather than visa holding “foreigners” who are willing to take up these important demanding, yet low paid, roles.
The list goes on.
Workers must invest in themselves to ensure they maintain marketable skills relevant to their chosen living locations. Dinosaurs and Dodos became extinct for a reason. Workers who fail to maintain their relevance should suffer the same fate.
It is a simple choice: Adapt or die.
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