Although I didn’t realize it at the time, when I left college in 2004 we were right in the middle of a shift in how a “career” was defined. There was still this prevailing wisdom that you would find an entry level job at a good company, slowly work your way up over the course of decades from junior level to senior level to management. It would take a long time, but in return you got the stability of a steady paycheck, health care, and a pension.
This mentality was prevalent at the internships I had throughout college, in the teachings I received in college, and in my engineering job that I worked after I graduated. At the same time, technology was taking over the workplace, and it was very clear to me that my generation was much better at using this technology, so the idea of “paying your dues” when you’re better at the critical components of your job perplexed/confused/frustrated/angered me.
In a fiery rant back in 2007 that flooded my inbox with nasty emails, I wrote about my experience:
An engineering student from a top school knows the ins and outs of every latest and greatest piece of software available. All of the places I worked it was OUR generation that was teaching the older generation more efficient uses of THEIR technology. Subsequently, our most skilled ProENGINEER (3D Modeling software) and Minitab (statistical modeling software) professionals were the students who just arrived fresh from college. The students just spent years learning from some of the best professors in the world, pushing each other to learn the limits of the software for challenging exams. When they arrived at our company, they suddenly realized that they were leaps and bounds ahead of the veteran engineers.
In my head I foresaw a war between old school and new school as this all played out over decades, a messy transition to the future while the last of the prior generations slowly left the workforce. Then a funny thing happened: it all kind of worked itself out. The recession of 2008 blew up any notion of the idea that you could work for a single large company for a lifetime and be rewarded for it. You could no longer “hide” within a company without doing any real, useful work. Companies didn’t have time to train and groom someone for 5 years. The jobs and the people that remained were left because they produced. In Albany we have a lot of government and academic jobs, and both of those previously thought of safe havens haven’t been immune to budget cuts and job losses either.
Now, when a company does make a hire, they need that hire to come in and produce meaningful work almost right away…regardless of age. It’s too costly not to. Which, inadvertently, has sort of eliminated the “ageism” I felt my generation was subject to.
Last week as I was writing about my excitement for the next generation to hit the workforce, it dawned on me: they might not be subject to the “pay your dues” mentality. Companies hiring them need them to do real work right away, which aligns well with them because they want to do meaningful work. How exciting is that?