As the release of January’s jobs report will likely remind us on Friday, unemployment is a double whammy for white-collar American workers. In addition to experiencing financial stress, many unemployed workers end up fearing that something is deeply wrong with them.
I interviewed more than 170 white-collar job seekers in the U.S. and Israel between 2004-2006 and between 2011-2012 for my new book, Flawed System/Flawed Self: Job Searching and Unemployment Experiences, and I was surprised by how many of the unemployed Americans confided that, in the course of their job searches, they had come to feel “flawed.” Israelis who had gone just as long without finding a job didn’t tend to blame themselves that way; they were convinced it was a flawed system that kept them unemployed. It didn’t seem likely to me that Americans were inherently more self-blaming than Israelis. Instead, my research revealed how the particular and peculiar process of American white-collar job searching — a process I call the “chemistry game” — renders the players vulnerable to a debilitating self-blame.
Graduation speeches tend to be a mix of advice and calls to responsibility. Most tend to cover a broad patch of issues. Given the difficult job market high school and college graduates are entering today, perhaps a speech that advises and cajoles responsible actions to navigate the labor market is called for.
Here’s my career advice and call to action.
Congratulations! You have heeded your parent’s advice to work hard in school and get the best education possible, with the implied promise that by doing so you will do well when you graduate. You held up your part of the bargain, but unfortunately the economy you are entering is not holding up its part.
You are entering a troubled labor market that doesn’t have enough jobs to go around for all new high school or college graduates. Some of you will do very well indeed, especially those of you who have gained some work experience while in school and especially those of you who were fortunate enough to work in summer or co-op jobs and are now invited to join that organization on a full-time basis working in a career that uses your education and skills. Others with highly marketable technical or so-called STEM (science technical, engineering, and math) majors also face somewhat better prospects than those of you who followed your dreams to study literature, history, or the arts.
We’ve all heard the message from our parents: If you work hard, get a good education, and play by the rules, you will do well in life. Baby boomers like me were able to turn that formula into the American Dream.
But while we were able to graduate from high school, vocational school programs, or college into an economy that was growing and providing us with great opportunities, we cannot make the same promise to our children and grandchildren today. Instead of hope, the nation faces a widening economic divide; according to Gallup and other surveys, a majority of Americans agree that the U.S. has been going in the wrong direction for at least a decade, and they expect thenext generation will have a lower standard of living than ours.
Is this gloomy outlook inevitable? Have the global economy, ever-advancing technology, and other forces left us with no control over the destiny of future generations? Only if we choose to do nothing. Reversing course is possible, but it will take a cross-generational effort by baby boomers and next-generation leaders to negotiate what I call a New Social Contract that fits and works with the features of the future economy and workforce.
Thomas Kochan is the George Maverick Bunker Professor of Management, a Professor of Work and Employment Research and Engineering Systems, and the Co-Director of the MIT Sloan Institute for Work and Employment Research at the MIT Sloan School of Management.
Companies promote diversity in the workplace as a moral imperative with “bottom line benefits.” But research on the value of diversity is mixed. Some studies have found diverse teams—meaning workgroups comprised of employees of different races, genders, and backgrounds—promote creativity, nurture critical thinking, and tend to make better, more thoughtful decisions because they consider a wider range of perspectives. Other studies indicate diverse teams fuel interpersonal conflicts, reduce cohesion, and slow the pace of learning.
Gap announced last week that it would increase its hourly minimum wage to $9 this year and $10 next year. Naturally, President Obama applauded the decision, which was in line with his own push to raise the minimum wage. But what Gap is after is not greater fairness or less income inequality. According to the chain’s CEO, Glenn Murphy, the reason for this move is that Gap implemented a“reserve-in-store” program 18 months ago, meaning that customers can order a product online and then pick it up at a particular store. Gap realizes that this program won’t work without skilled, motivated, and loyal employees.
This is hardly a surprise to me. Remember Borders bookstores? Almost 15 years ago, I studied Borders as it was trying to integrate its online store with its physical stores. Borders had great technology to tell online customers which book was available at which store. But there was a fatal hitch: the inventory data was not reliable. The system would tell a customer a book was in the store, but no one could find it. This happened 18% of the time! That’s way too many customers to let down and, in fact, Borders had to give up on the idea. Eventually, it went out of business.
Why were so many products not where they belonged? I found that stores that had fewer employees, less training, and more turnover had more of this problem. By going cheap on labor expenses, Borders made it hard to act on a strategic opportunity.