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The belief that stable jobs would deliver steadily improving living standards has long been one of the major cycles of the American dream. But today a queasy sense of insecurity haunts many working people. From neatly coifed executives to aproned production workers, once secure futures now seem threatened. Wave after wave of corporate restructurings has knocked away the underpinnings of career- long employment that sustained workers’ confidence in their future.

Even before recent signs that the economy is slowing, Americans were voicing extra unease. In a Gallup poll last year, just 26% thought the economy was in good shape, and few saw any improvement down the road. Only 24% believed their children would live as well as they do

This anxiety is not the kind that sits quietly. It has spoken up loudly in strident opposition to recent trade accords and in rising hostility to immigration.

But the most profound effect of this malaise may be more subtle changes in the American psyche. Despite occasional improvements in consumer confidence, the optimism that defined America’s national character during the postwar period appears badly depleted, and with it, people’s willingness to embrace new challenges. When people lose things of such magnitude, they can easily lose hope too.

It is not surprising that revolutionary changes in the economy should yield a wave of new insecurities. But what goes unnoticed amid the unsettling shifts is the many new opportunities that have been created as well, opportunities to launch a new career and to take charge of your future. This upside is not yet apparent to most workers, but that’s partly a matter of perspective. What many see today is a growing schism between their ingrained expectations of what it takes to prosper and their recent experiences in the labor market.

I believe that people need a new mental model for the new, less predictable workplace, one that leads them to rely less on employers for career direction and advancement. They also need more knowledge of the opportunities and support services available beyond their primary employer. Most important, people need to assume more responsibility for their finances-the reliance upon their employer for guarantees of a secure retirement is a comfortable but dangerously outdated notion.

Many of these changes are already being forced upon us. There are estimates that of the eight jobs Americans can expect to hold over the course of their working lives, half will terminate involuntarily. Companies no longer offer people careers. People create their own careers.

However it happens, the business of earning a living and planning for the future will require an attitude adjustment of monumental proportions. Americans today are no better prepared for the new ways of earning a living in the emerging economy they face than 18th-century English yeomen were at the dawn of the Industrial Age.

To understand what I mean, consider the minor miracle your biweekly pay stub represents. By the time your pay shows up-perhaps deposited automatically into your bank account-your employer will have computed and forwarded to the tax authorities a proportional down payment on your annual tax bill. Deductions will have been made for the health and disability coverage your employer negotiated on your behalf. Some tax-exempt portion of your gross income will have been steered into the contributory pension fund the benefits department structured to offer you retirement security.

The low-maintenance, regular paycheck encapsulates the essential relationship between employer and employee in the old economy-benevolent paternalism on the part of the employer, near-bovine passivity on the part of the worker. The net pay is like an allowance, yours to spend. And spend and spend and spend. Why worry about your expenses next week, or the savings you may need to tap next year? After all, there’ll be more paychecks arriving, like clockwork, by the time you need them-the last great nongovernmental entitlement.

Breaking that pattern of ostrich like denial will be one of the most daunting challenges facing workers well into the 21st century. Most people are still corks bobbing on the new economy’s choppy waves. They must learn how to surf. I think that unless you are competent in managing your personal finances, you cannot be competent in, managing your career.

At bottom, learning to combine the skills of being self -directed in your career and a savvy steward of your personal finances means being clear about your occupational and personal goals. The old career paradigm of signing on to a job right out of school and climbing a corporate ladder until retirement is no longer appropriate. The new paradigm requires that every worker-whether just’ getting started or nearing retirement-continuously reassess where he or she stands occupationally and financially and be prepared to change direction as need or opportunity beckons.

The challenges awaiting a new-economy player are many. But challenges often spark the new perspective necessary to regain that lost sense of security. Whether it is a frustrated Generation Xer or a threatened middle-aged manager, the critical change is realizing that the security they seek is some thing they must provide themselves.

Recent college graduates-who grew up watching their parents or neighbors fall victim to corporate downsizing-are both better equipped and at a greater disadvantage than older peers for building careers in the new economy. Though new graduates bring fresh skills to the labor market, the inflation-adjusted earnings of young workers with four-year university degrees have taken a fall after the collapse of the DOT com industry not. Job seekers, moreover, leave school often heavily in debt and acutely aware that the entry-level management positions earlier generations relied on to lead them in- to career-long jobs are few. But the experience of working within an organization is prized not solely for the income they urgently need but for the exposure it provides to the culture and disciplines of the workplace.

Fewer are getting that critical seasoning. The early work experience of Generation Xers a couple of years out of school is fraught with false start and seeming dead end The average tenure of young engineers in their first jobs has plunged from about three years to just one year today–barely long enough to sample the full range of menu offerings in the company cafeteria.

Given the odds against them, can recent graduates steer their ways into satisfying, remunerative careers? You bet-at least those who learn early on to manage their personal finances wisely and approach the task strategically can.

Older workers who have spent decades snugly wrapped in the paycheck cocoon are perhaps most vulnerable to the insecurities of the, new economy. Recent finds that, as jobs have become less stable, the economic advantages of seniority have been eroding. In the mid-1970s, men with at least ten years’ tenure earned 20% more than counterparts who moved around. By the late 1980s that pay advantage had fallen to just over 6% a median declines of $3,000 a year. Still, these senior managers, at the peak of the pay ladder and stalled in the further upward progress they can make in their organizations, are fat prospects to be cut when employers downsize.

Rather than face a premature retirement for which they may be financially unprepared, workers over age 50 who are willing to take some risk can find greater economic security by relaunching their Generation Xer’s Fuzzy Career Path..

The economic reversals suffered by middle-aged victims of corporate downsizing reverberate among more fortunate relatives, friends, and neighbors who fear the same could happen to them. Who hasn’t watched someone they know try to master the new techniques of rebuilding a career at a time when their confidence-badly shaken by feelings of rejection when a layoff hits-is low? Lacking a cushion of savings to see them through the crisis, many job losers succumb to despair when paychecks stop but bills keep coming.

In their eagerness to replace lost income, I have observed, mid-career people who lose their jobs often make choices they aren’t prepared for. They take new positions that don’t suit their skills or invest in businesses they aren’t temperamentally equipped to run. Financial desperation is especially insidious for those who frantically turn to self -employment. Companies don’t hire consultants who are desperate. What does impress them is the kind of preparedness and clarity about one’s priorities that demonstrates you have a mature expectation of the current market.

It’s a brave new world of uncertain jobs, variable pay, and heaps of financial anxiety. But this strange terrain offers opportunity also.

Today, two diverse forces are stimulating entrepreneurial dreams as never before. First, the trend toward downsizing and payroll cutting in the face of increasing intense competitive pressures has made entrepreneurship an appealing career choice to many middle management executives and engineers who’s jobs have been abolished or are in jeopardy.

Secondly, governmental efforts to encourage new business formations through technology transfer and other strategies has created a situation in which there may be more incentives than ever before for high tech start-ups. All the government effort in technology conversion and commercialization is giving entrepreneurship a real boost. For those of you wishing to learn more about how to obtain Government Funding (FREE MONEY) I recommend that you attend the SBIR Conference September 26th at the State of Illinois Center Auditorium 100 W. Randolph Street 8:00 A.M. 5:00 P.M. ADMISSION IS FREE However you will need to register by sending an email to

There are two ways to start a new business. The first involves bootstrapping a company from scratch or with minimal capital. The second involves high reward for higher risk, pushing the envelope both of the market.

Starting with little more than good ideas and technical competence, entrepreneurs following. the first method have built sound small scale businesses. Operating without formal plans for growing their company or even marketing their products, they have done well and enj6y their lifestyle and even more importantly, they have realized a dream of running their own show.

The second way involves developing sensational technology with the potential for high financial gains. Marketing is a must, too. Technology is important, but the person that grabs the market succeeds.

Companies choosing the second method will need world-class managerial skill, world-class technology and world-class investors. To raise the money needed to develop the technology and build market momentum rapidly, the entrepreneur will have to give up quite a bit of control and accept a small piece of a huge pie. However if the technology catches on, the company makes it big. This is the path to the front page of the Wall Street Journal. It can also be the path to spectacular crash and burn failure.

Maybe money is out as a prime motivation, but with all the talk of trust, honesty and teamwork, it seems ironic to say what really does motivate many entrepreneurs is control. This would not be control over other people, one’s employees for example, but control over one’s own destiny.

Starting and building a company is really a lifestyle, something not motivated by anything else. Money is sort of an interesting way to measure success. In the end it fall to the risk-taking entrepreneur to decide what method to use. Would you prefer greater control over the business and settle for slow growth? Or do you really want to see your face on the cover of Fortune, and settle for a smaller piece of a much larger pie? Neither route is stress free, but the waiting for the ax to fall in your company’s next downsizing isn’t stress free either.

However by taking the plunge, and going into business for yourself, whatever route you take, you will be joining a long line of individuals who have made our country what it is today and brought it to the threshold of a business boom. And even more importantly you could be the first of a next wave of entrepreneurs to revitalize the country for the next century.

This Economics & Policy article was written by Jerry West on 2/11/2005

Jerry Mitchell is president of the Midwest Entrepreneurs’ Forum and president of consultancy Jerry R. Mitchell and Associates.