Every year March 29th has a special significance to me. Not because it happens to be the day that I was born but because it marks my mother’s work anniversary with her company. This wouldn’t resonate with most people, but it does with me because of just how much career paths have changed in just a few short decades.
You see, this year marks the 39th year my mother has been with the same telecommunications company. Spending almost four decades with the same company seems almost unprecedented these days, even more so, when I think that my mother’s longest committed relationship in her life has not been with a person but with her company, her work. That says something.
Last year the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the median number of years that salaried workers had been with their current employer was 4.6 years. And current projections show that we will now only spend 2-3 years at a job with a likeliness of holding 15-20 jobs in a 50 year career span.
So what has changed? Sure there are the occasional anomalies like my mother, but there used to be the days where you worked for the company, you had loyalty, and you did everything you could to hold onto the job you had and work your way up. And there were commitments on a company’s part to keep you engaged and provide opportunities to grow.
Now we are constantly looking to greener pastures and loyalty seems scarce or wishful with the exception of a handful of companies that still push hard for it as a part of their culture. Our commitments are more to people such as a boss, a colleague, or a mentor, versus an organization.
At the same time, industry and the economy is also shifting how we work. Many people haven’t had the luxury of choosing to stay with a company as technology has made many jobs obsolete and the economy has booted many more individuals into new paths they may not have yet been ready to explore.
Had these things not factored in, would we still choose to stay with companies or has how we perceive our careers changed. Are jobs now more than just making a steady income to support our lifestyles? Have they become a part of our identity and is it in our search to find a better position part of our need to define who we are and what we stand for?
With each generation are we expecting companies to bring more or less to the table? Or is it that we are hoping for more but expecting less? And how do our expectations affect our working relationship with our employers?
I remember growing up getting to help my mother pick out her anniversary gifts from her company to mark big years with clocks or jewelry and what it symbolized. And again, I think of my mother, who still, after nearly four decades of loyalty to a company, has to wonder if she will have a job each year as communications unions renegotiate contracts and how these symbols of recognition pale to the questions of uncertainty the future holds.
And even now, when I asked her who is taking her to lunch today on her work anniversary via text message (which in years past was a point of pride), her response was “Those days are over.” And this thought made me sad, that even to the most loyal of employees who still stand by their companies, those days of two way loyalty are over.
But, perhaps there is a bright side in that now both sides must work even harder to live up to each other’s expectations to produce great things. Perhaps knowing that there are expiration dates on commitments to work it in turn changes how we view the work.
Our legacies are now built in small chunks of time here and there pieced together like a puzzle rather than a linear timeline. And I wonder today as I reflect on the past 30 years of my life and look to the future, what will be my longest committed relationship in my lifetime. Will it be another person? Will it be to discovering my work and the journey? Will it be to a company, like my mother? Where will future generations’ priorities lie when it comes to our careers?