Job ambiguity: The future and you

I couldn’t tell you the exact number of meditations I’ve read in a panic on the topic of job ambiguity but I could tell you how many I’d recommend.

Globalization, advancements in technology and the celerity at which their both occurring present several key challenges for young professionals. A sharp increase in education requirements, for one, has cowed an entire generation into a perpetual pursuit of degrees. Fierce competition is now the only real visible feature of a job market that is becoming increasingly ill-defined. In the meantime, saddled with debt and robbed of time, graduates settle into chronic underemployment.

To many the solution is simply a matter of beating the market at its own game – adaptability: put in the work to become so valuable, in so many essential ways, you become unfireable.

Flexibility is important, but it’s only the first of many necessary steps.

I couldn’t tell you the exact number of meditations I’ve read in a panic on the topic of job ambiguity but I could tell you how many I’d recommend.

Ellen Ruppel Shell, a correspondent for the Atlantic and author of “The Job: Work and its Future in a Time of Radical Change” attempts to dispel some of the myths that needle the dialectic. Too often the conversation that accompanies career uncertainty is a clumsy sterile one: laborers are afraid of robots and those with sophisticated jobs fear outsourcing.

Adapting to a mercurial market can’t exclusively be aided by economic musings because the problem is also a philosophical one.  In her pursuit to definitively define the value of work, Shell finds herself in the company of workers from varied fields – uncovering a sobering truth: We’ve collectively abandoned the distinction between good work and meaningful work.

The line has been blurred or – more accurately, misrepresented.  It’s this breed of misunderstanding that seriously wounds perseverance. Before we can combat the developing job world of the future we first have to dismantle the stigmas that sicken this one.

The college myth

Millennials receive a fair share of censure for their desire to find meaning in their work. I am deaf to neither the critique or the ache but as Shell establishes, we must be careful not to deter the drive. There are jobs, careers, and callings.

Your source of income isn’t beholden to any of the three but you can find meaning in all of them. It’s a question of attitude – perspective. The jobs that merely provide us with a living afford us the liberty to find meaning in other aspects of our lives. If you’re one of the few lucky enough to be compensated for your calling be wary of enabling the job itself to define you.

“Don’t be married to the job, be engrossed in the work,” Shell says. Allow flexibility to become the insulation between you and the advancing technological age. My generation is staffed by a toxic resentment – a resentment reared by the college myth. We enter the workforce with its bile coursing through our veins. We want careers that immediately justify all the time and money dissevered from us. Here I recommend some self-reproach. It is quixotic on our part to entrust a degree with the task of procuring a stable living.

Shell dissects the falsehood cleanly in a piece published in the New York Times, writing:

“If future income was determined mainly by how much education people received, then you would assume that some higher education would be better than none. But this is often not the case. People who have dropped out of college — about 40 percent of all who attend — earn only a bit more than do people with only a high school education: $38,376 a year versus $35,256. For many, that advantage is barely enough to cover their student loan debt.”

Going forward we must inspect our thirst for higher education with vicious scrutiny. Is it an earnest one? Or is it one informed by socioeconomic expectations?

One such professional seems to have gotten it right the first time, allowing her to receive the fiscal shrapnel with a welcomed dose of prudence. Brooklyn based essayist Haylee Millikan, currently completing a dual Masters in Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism and Gender and Sexuality Studies at The New School of Social Research, meets job ambiguity with nature’s mirror and rejects the poetry of squandered time. She cements the long and visible silences between pursuing education or publishing literature by making her creative skills practically useful.

I had the pleasure of a brief correspondence, during which she leaped to correct my use of the word “fear” as the author of her hunger for knowledge, stating instead: “I was motivated by the desire to further my knowledge about the things I’m professionally interested in, in a world that requires a certain pace from successful young adults.”

“I wanted to be able to back up the organizational and research background I had with a degree. I know from working as a liaison to admissions for both my graduate programs that people look to pursue higher education because they think it offers them more opportunity in a job market that is turning more and more freelance and where companies are expecting employees to be able to juggle many different kinds of work at once at a high caliber,” Millikan told me. “With that being said, there’s value in being an educated person in a falling-apart world and I enjoy being a part of academic communities immensely.”

Anecdotes like this one go a long way to defy the antiquated pick-up-your-bootstrap slight that has been hurled at Millennials for the better part of a decade. Millikan – a poet, and a battler – imbibed the notion that college was a necessity, absorbed the nutrients then expelled the toxins. Generational solidarity is by far the lowest form (Rip Mr. Hitchens) but the conversation of job ambiguity has permitted it a new life. I ask you to spurn all proclamations that belittle desire for meaning in the workplace and make a point to never abandon the want. The tools to man a vertiginous landscape are forged in the mind.

A study published by Medica Xpress conducted on 800 subjects from a wide range of industries found that workers with positive “attitudes” towards job ambiguity evidenced better leadership skills, lower stress levels and even earned a higher wage on balance than those that didn’t.

Unfortunately, as it stands, younger workers were found to be less likely to cope with ambiguity than older ones. In summation of the aim of Ellen Ruppel Shell’s many mediations on the subject, the pertinacity of Millikan’s trajectory and a few beans of my own: Stay calm, be adjustable, develop a thirst for novel challenges, and most importantly be sure to maintain a sense of purpose in either the work you’re doing or the freedom it affords you.

On this Millikan adds: “Impact can be measured in a lot of different ways, and what is meaningful to me is certainly not universal.”

“But I will say that I’ve always thought about my impact in simultaneously tangible and intangible ways,” Millikan continues. “Some of my work is directly related to helping people and creating resources, and some is calling attention to issues that people may not think they have time to care about. I try to prioritize working for organizations that allow me to fulfill on some level those values, and that’s what is meaningful to me.”

Pomp and circumstance isn’t a funeral dirge. Salute the precarious future that awaits you with confidence, caution, and an eager heart.

CW Headley|is a reporter for Ladders and can be reached at cheadley@theladders.com.