The fluid generation

December 17, 2018


fluid generation

Fluid generation.

I was recently with my 22 year old son talking about “the future”.  His future, to be specific.  Not one of those “now son, it’s time you got serious and started to plan everything for the next fifty years” conversations, but more about how he imagines things might develop for him having recently embarked on the first stage of what I would describe as his first career.

His response was interesting, and not altogether surprising to me. I’ve had similar responses to this enquiry from several people of his generation over the last few years. In essence, he said he has no clear idea of how things will pan out for him beyond the next 4 years or so, and, (and this is the important bit to my mind), he’s not worried about it.  He’s focused on what he’s doing now and when the next stage of his career comes across the horizon he’ll make his choice about what to pursue given the opportunities that are presented.

Things are going to change so quickly in the meantime, both in the world of work and beyond, that there’s little point in trying to plan beyond holding some fairly loose ideas.

This is the fluid generation.

The term has been coined to refer to the rejection of gender as binary: male or female.  While most of us find the idea of gender fluidity at best confusing and at worst dangerously threatening, most of my son’s friends have absolutely no difficulty with it, and I admire them for it. Indeed, they find it curious that we struggle with such a notion.

The idea of fluidity for millennials, I suggest, is not confined to gender. I think young people are fluid, open, non-committal about just about everything of importance in their lives.

Granted, when I was in my twenties I couldn’t tell you what my long-term plan was so that’s nothing new.  What is different is that when I was in my twenties I had a sense that I was on some kind of linear path in life  – that each step would lead inevitably to the next. That model of thought was predominant for my, and probably previous, generations.  I also saw work in binary terms: employed or unemployed; waged or self-employed; working hours and non-working hours; weekday and weekend. Again, I’m not saying that these distinctions have completely disappeared, but I don’t think they are as defining for millennials as they were for me. A week that comprises some hours of work, some hours learning, some in the gym, some volunteering, plus the inevitable every moment in between online, so that ones social life is conducted more or less continuously throughout the day, regardless of the primary activity, is standard.

Moreover, in my day it was rare for anyone in their twenties or thirties to work on a freelance basis.  Nowadays many young people work that way, and as a freelancer working hours are very much more fluid than 9 to 5. My daughter is not yet 24 yet has worked on several projects as a freelancer, and that’s not counting internships. Self-employment is the norm for her and she’s doing this alongside her studies.

Why is it that those people just now becoming economically active see the world in much more fluid terms?

We can’t discount the pace of change in the world. Things have moved on significantly in the handful of years since the millennials left school. Technology is their touchstone, and they know better than anyone how quickly ideas, apps, games, etc., become old.  They are completely used to obsolescence in every aspect of their lives.

Perhaps political uncertainly also plays a part?  Unpredictability in world affairs, environmental collapse,  and in the breakdown of the left v right system may all be feeding a sense amongst young people that it is foolish to predict what their world will look like in the medium-term, let alone the long-term.

In other words, there’s no point in my children and their friends planning for the future because that future is so unpredictable.  Actually the future was always unpredictable, but my generation and those before me thought they could predict it. Instead millennials living much more in the moment, seeking satisfaction from what is available now, taking advantage of current opportunities, and wherever those opportunities lead, that will be their path. They are not confining their decisions to work opportunities, but to life opportunities, because work opportunities are no more valuable, have no more potential to lead to a “good” life, than any other opportunity.

Again, my generation also responded to opportunities.  People I work with in their forties and older talk me through their careers and many jobs taken are responses to opportunities rather than the result of planning.  Why did you go to work in Australia?  I was in Singapore and met an Australian, we got married and I went to live there for the next 20 years, might be a typical case, but that’s still a different situation to what I’m noticing today where people don’t even have a clear path from which to deviate.

I think that ten to fifteen years down the line we are going to see a significant cohort of people who have drifted, but that drifting will not be a bad thing, it will simply describe the way people move through life, settling down to something for a while and then upping and moving on to something else.

Why banning the salary question misses a major point

November 16, 2017

In a remarkably progressive move, not without resistance from the business community, various jurisdictions in the USA are banning interviewers from asking candidates about their salary history.

Few jobseekers will lament this move.  It’s the no win question – either tell the truth and the advantage is with the employer when an offer is made, or risk being found out later for exaggerating when the tax information is passed on, for example.  While there are ways to sidestep the question it’s difficult to do so, and carries the other risk that an unwillingness to share will put the candidate at a disadvantage.

The reason for the ban is right and proper.

Women in the US earn approximately 80% of the salary of men for the equivalent job. By asking for salary history information this discrepancy is perpetuated. Now, it is suggested that by asking instead for salary expectations the problem will persist, and that may be partially true, at least until women gain the confidence to ask for the right amount, nevertheless this ban can only be a good move.


This is the best image I could find when searching on the term “women’s relative salary”

Certainly, many women and men will be relieved not to have to answer the last / current salary question, although most people don’t know how best to deal with the question about salary expectations.

Why? Because they don’t know what number is most likely to secure them the job, and they therefore shoot low.  The mistake is to think that they are required to answer with a number. While the interviewer is almost certainly looking for a number,  if the candidate does not know what they can legitimately expect they can’t answer the question with a figure.

And here’s the thing.  The question is framed in such a way that it assumes the candidate knows how much they should be paid for a job, when they know very little about the role. They don’t know what demands and responsibilities it holds (the job description and person spec are unlikely to be sufficiently accurate sources of data to allow one make such a judgement) and crucially, they don’t know how much other people (read: men) at that level in the organisation are paid.

It’s an inappropriate question to ask a candidate because the employer knows what the correct pay level should be, and the reason they ask the question is because it might provide an opportunity to offer a lower salary than they need to, and all the better if that lower salary is still greater than the candidate quoted as their expectation.

In an ideal world there would be no discussion of salary at the interview stage.  If a person is deemed to be the best candidate they should be offered the job at a fair salary that takes into account the level of difficulty, targets, scarcity of skills and what other colleagues earn. It doesn’t work like that because there’s a zero-sum game that is played out in recruitment that sets up an antagonistic rather than collaborative relationship between employer and employee from the very start.

Of course it’s completely unacceptable that women are offered less than men for the same position, but what is missed is that employers want to play games that might lead to resentment from any employee when they could, if they were honest and fair, increase loyalty through their salary system.


The end of retirement

September 14, 2017

I read a book. Not just any book. I read a business book. I buy business books every now and again, and read them less frequently. I have a small pile of unread business books going back several years. The truth is I don’t much enjoy reading business books. I find they rarely have much to say that justifies the time it takes to go through them, for a slow reader like me at least.

However, for a reason that defies any logic given what I’ve just said, I recently joined a reading group for career consultants and the first book we agreed to discuss was The 100-year life by Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott.

I’m pleased about that because I found it full of interesting ideas, some of which I have been considering myself for a while, which meant I felt simultaneously flattered that my thoughts rank alongside those of the authors of a Financial Times business book of the year shortlist maker, and frustrated that I didn’t write the thing first. It would possibly have been the first business book that justified the time it took me to read.


I won’t offer a review because there are many available.  Instead I’ll pick up on the overall theme of the book, because it encapsulates much of my thinking about careers as we look to the future.

The essential premise is that as we live longer people will no longer conform to the Education – Work – Retirement pattern for a number of reasons, primarily economic.  Instead people will transition between periods of different uses of their time.  They will dip in and out of education throughout their life, they will spend chunks of time across their life in a range of different careers, they will spend periods of time travelling, or raising a family, or focusing on charitable activities. These are not mutually exclusive.  More and more people will work part-time while volunteering or engaging in other personal pursuits.

The challenge for society will be how it adapts to this model. Apart from the obvious question about how pensions will be funded – a problem we are already struggling with – we also need to consider when state pensions will be available to a person if they are potentially going to be economically active for blocks of time with an undefined end point?

It seems obvious that people will need to save more when they are working in order to fund the time when they are not working, and the big implication here is that people will be working for many more years, overall, than they do now. We will, perhaps, be working well into our eighties, and this suggests the most profound shift – that society will be forced to re-think its current narrative that people are no longer of value to the economy after a certain age.

Retirement at an early age is, as the authors point out, a fairly modern concept. It turns out that it is probably a historical blip and that most people will work for as long as they have capacity to do so. In the past the amount of time that elapsed between retirement and death was just a few years at best. In the future we will probably have the same number of years between our last stint in employment and death.



Getting the cover letter right

February 16, 2016

It often happens that a particular issue pops up several times in a short space of time. Recently I’ve been asked to help a few people with their cover letters.

Many think the cover letter is less important than getting the application form or CV right.  That’s a mistake because while there are many who take little notice of cover letters, there will certainly be those for whom it makes the difference between getting past the first stage of selection or not.

Some employers specifically ask applicants to deliver their application form or CV with a cover letter.  This is clearly an opportunity to impress over your competitors who may not have taken it as seriously.

So what can you do to make the most of the cover letter?  As always, ask yourself what the reader will be looking for.  Some people read the cover letter before looking at the rest of the application, which is what you would assume, but some read it after.  It’s safe to assume that those who read it first are expecting you to provide them with enough information to enable them to decide whether you are a credible candidate worthy of having the rest of the application materials looked at or not.

Where the cover letter is read after, you can assume that they make the decision that you are a worthy candidate from the CV or application form, and the letter is subsequently read to see how good you are at articulating your case in writing.

Either way, a good letter will help.

You therefore need to think about content and style, and you need to keep it short.  Unless otherwise stated I would not recommend more than a single side, and as usual that does not mean reducing font size and margin width.  It means 4 – 500 words as a general rule.  There are many examples online and they mostly say the same thing about format and content so I won’t dwell on it.

Think about the key competencies the employer is looking for, and mention the achievements you have that relate to those competencies.  You won’t be able to cover everything, so don’t try.  Focus on the most important two or three.

The other thing they will probably care about is your motivation, so tell them briefly why you think this role is good for your career development.

In terms of style, write in a way that is readable and flowing.  efficient lists of information may help you to get more information across but that is what your CV is for.  The letter is your chance to engage the reader, to draw them in, so it needs to be interesting to read.  Make them want to know more about you.  Don’t attempt to tell them everything you can.




The bell-curve shaped career ladder

January 4, 2016

We tend think of careers as a process of climbing, and at the end of it we are at our highest point on the ladder.

In fact that’s never been the case and according to HM Revenue and Customs data average wages now peak at around 40 – 45 years old. In other words salaries are now highest for the average worker at around the half way point of their career. For some, salaries decline gradually after then, while for the average they fall away significantly so that someone still in work over the age of seventy will be taking home much the same as someone in their early twenties.

Our career trajectory is not a line that goes up from bottom left to top right, but more of a bell-curve.

Career Ladder

Career ladders look more like this…


…than this

This data is based on all levels.  I couldn’t find specific information for management roles, but my guess is that the pattern is similar.

If we lose our job or decide to leave, the likelihood is that at best we will find a job at a similar salary once we reach this age group and beyond.  Mostly however, we will need to make compromises and accept a lower salary.  In other words, after our mid-forties we are climbing down the ladder.

The prospect of climbing down the ladder for over twenty-five years of working life is demoralising. So what can be done?

First, accept the situation.  This is the new reality and not everyone can keep progressing in a world where people are working for longer and company structures are getting flatter. There are simply not the positions to be promoted into, and so progress stops earlier than in the past.

Next consider these options:

1 Go self-employed. Become a consultant and sell your expertise.  The likelihood for many is that earnings will still go down but fulfilment will go up. For some, working in a lower level job is humiliating, while being one’s own boss, even if that means less money, is preferable.

2 Learn new skills in order to broaden your appeal and make you more employable.  This may help to keep the salary higher than otherwise. Besides, learning is is good for the brain.  As we age, brain-training becomes more an more important.

3 Change your values.  Instead of thinking within the framework of money and status, look for fulfilment and meaning in your work. Doing something new and different makes for a more interesting life.  Work is not just about money and status, it’s a way to stay healthy in our twilight years.  It means getting out, interacting with people and thinking. Physical, social and intellectual activities are the key to a healthy balanced life.

There it is. We work for longer than ever before and our earnings decline from about half way through, but surely that’s better than years of watching daytime tv?

Google’s Israeli-Arab Success Story

December 1, 2015

A few days ago I was lucky enough to attend a short talk about the hi-tech sector in Israel.  Specifically it was to do with a small charity called Tsofen, dedicated to developing the hi-tech sector in Israel’s Arab communities.

Israel is at the vanguard of technology based industries, yet for a number of reasons, political and cultural, the Arab communities are under-represented in these sectors.  Tsofen believes that a by increasing opportunities for Israel’s Arab citizens to participate in hi-tech they will help to bring about a more equitable society.

We heard from Tsofen’s determined CEO, Paz Hirschmann, and also from Safaa Eek, a somewhat demure yet super-smart woman who is one of Tsofen’s success stories.  She told us of the traditional values of the Arab village in northern Israel where she comes from – a village where parents aspire for their children to become doctors, because doctors will always work, and of the resistance she faced when she expressed her desire to follow her dream into computing.

How does an Arab woman find a job in an industry that is hardly even present in Arab areas?

Safaa told us that she attended meet-ups and events as frequently as she could.  Being the only person wearing a hijab, she was certainly noticed, and before long she was building valuable contacts, alerting her to opportunities.

google IsraelWithout question it was a long, hard journey.  Safaa attended many interviews without success.  She jut didn’t fit the image of an IT person.  Then she hooked up with Tsofen who helped her to connect with suitable organisations through their networking events, and this led to her being offered a position with Google. Google are employing Safaa and funding her Computer Science degree course in Tel Aviv.

Regular readers and clients will know what I’m going to say and I’m going to keep saying it: it’s all about networking!

If networking can work for the first, and so far only, Arab to work for Google in Tel Aviv, think how valuable building connections, relationships, and having conversations will be for you as you plot your career journey.

Recruiters are useful, without question, and for many people that’s how they get their jobs, but less and less so.  If you’re not immersing yourself in your professional community, setting up one to one meetings and attending events, you’re doing  far less than half of what you need to be doing to secure that next job.

Send emails and pick up the phone!



Why Functional CVs Don’t Work

November 23, 2015

In all the years I’ve been working in the field of careers counselling I have never been convinced that functional CVs help candidates.  People don’t get them, and don’t want to get them.  We are just too used to the reverse chronological CV.

Glossary time:  functional CVs are the ones that are set out in terms of your various skill sets, reverse chronological CVs are the ones that are set out in terms of your career history starting from the most recent job and moving back in time.


Reverse Chronological, Functional or both? Do you have one CV or 2CVs? (See what I did there? Come on, this is a much better picture than a stock photo of a piece of paper with a pen casually placed upon it, isn’t it?)

So what’s to be done for people making career transitions where their career history is irrelevant?

Well, their career history is often not irrelevant.  The vast majority of what an employer is, or should be, looking for is whether the candidate fits in.  The technical stuff of the job can usually be taught, except in obvious situations where long term training and qualifications are required.

The trick, therefore, is to communicate relevance in ways other than through the body of the CV.  The point is that the CV itself is of very little use for people making a career change.  CVs are for recruiters and employers who want to compare candidates for a job, but you are unlikely to be able to compete for a job in a field you have little knowledge of, against people with experience, so don’t try it.  Don’t apply for jobs through the normal channels.

If you want to move industry or function then you need to build relationships with people in those industries or functions, and talk to them about why you want to change and why you think you have what it takes to be successful, even if you don’t have much experience.

This is the proactive approach, and people who are proactive about their careers are impressive, and are often given a chance to prove their worth.

CVs and application based job searching does not work in these circumstances.  You need to establish the relationship and explain the situation. Then you can offer the reverse chronological CV, the format everyone loves, and the fact that it does not look relevant won’t matter so much, because you will already have explained why it doesn’t look relevant.

Disclaimer:  If this makes it sound easy to change careers just remember it isn’t.  It’s hard, but it’s easier if you do it the right way than if you keep failing while doing it the wrong way.