Our Mythology about “Jobs” is Holding Everything Back: Happy Labor Day!

The President is going to give his jobs speech next week. I know we are all hopeful that his words will mark a return to the good times. Just look at what I read this afternoon, another gloomy projection.

“As I write this the morning newspaper has yet another story of new “job losses” —- several stories actually. We are told that the recession has been over for quite a while but the percentage of the workforce that is “jobless” has not fallen the way it has at the end of previous recessions.”

William Bridges

Gosh, I am tired of hearing this, it reads like so many lead stories I may have seen on CNN Headline News in the past three years, but that reference to “newspaper” is odd. I wonder?…

Let’s take a little trip in the WABAC Machine; you all remember Mr. Peabody and Sherman don’t you? Maybe that will clear up my confusion…maybe! >>>………………………………….

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The most striking aspect of my first views of the city of Pittsburgh were the silhouettes of the steel mills that lined the Monongahela River as I drove in along highway 376 from the east. I arrived around mid-afternoon that February day in 1981, the sun was already sinking behind the hills. I did not notice at the time that there was no smoke coming from any of the chimney stacks in those mills. They had all been closed in the previous three years.

It didn’t take long after my arrival to begin to pick up from the locals the regular references to “when the mills open again and the good jobs come back” Pittsburgh had been a steel town since 1875, an industrial center since well before that and after all the mills were still there so there was always hope.

For several years after my arrival the conversation about the good jobs in the mills returning continued and then in early 1986 the mills themselves started being torn down and by late 1987 the riverfront was a clear and open space for the first time in over a century. There was finally room for something new to emerge, for another conversation to take the place of the hope filled refrains about steel and all the good times from the past.

Within 24 months new structures began to fill the space along the riverfront; long and low these new buildings would become home to technology, medical equipment and financial services companies which now form the backbone of the local economy. The old jobs never came back; they were replaced by new opportunities. Some of the new positions were filled by re-trained steel workers, many, perhaps most were not. Nothing new had any chance of happening until the mills were torn down. Until then those artifacts of the past served to anchor in a conversation that was more comforting than facing the anxiety of needing to create something to take their place. This conversation about jobs coming and going has a long history

I opened this piece with a quote from William Bridges. Very likely it sounded current, like news we continue to hear at least weekly as the economy has struggled to recover from the collapse of 2008. However, what I showed you there is not the entire quote. Here is the rest of what Bridges had to say, back in 1994!

“As I write this the morning newspaper has yet another story of new “job losses” —- several stories actually. We are told that the recession has been over for quite a while but the percentage of the workforce that is “jobless” has not fallen the way it has at the end of previous recessions. The Clinton administration is trying to “create jobs” although its critics claim that some of the current taxes and regulations will destroy jobs.”

William Bridges, Mill Valley California

These words are taken from the Preface to Bridges book titled ‘Job Shift: How to Prosper in an Economy without Jobs.’ The first 55 pages of this book should be required reading for every elected official in this country who prays on the fears of the unemployed and the employed by perpetuating the mythology of jobs and more importantly any reference to government’s ability to create jobs.

To be sure there is work to do, there will continue to be but it will not look so much like the jobs our politicians refer to, it will look more like “the work that needs to be done.” Our employees need to show up ready to engage with the “work that needs to be done.” The unemployed need to learn what elements of the “work that needs to be done” match their interests and prepare themselves so that rather than looking for a job they can look for places where the “work that needs to be done” is a match for their skills and interest.

What are the metaphorical steel mills that need to be torn down in your organization?

How about you consider these suggestions?

  • job descriptions
  • performance reviews
  • job clusters
  • pay systems based on jobs
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