The week@work – The future of work: exploring the influence of finance on inequality, work quality and experiments to allude all those ‘ceilings’@work

We are living in interesting times @work. Some of our traditional work models no longer fit with our values. As society and culture push back on antiquated work structures, new models emerge. The articles published this week@work consider the future of work by examining the external influences on the workplace and experiments at new models. And, one author suggests the Bureau of Labor Statistics include quality of life metrics in their employment reports.

The first two articles appear as part of the excellent Pacific Standard series on ‘The Future of Work and Workers’.

In the first, ‘The Future of Work: The (Excessive) Power of Finance’, Roosevelt Institute Fellow, Mike Konczal, writes about the broader implications of financial power on inequality @work.

“Academics often discuss the “financialization” of the economy, a mind-numbing term that simply means the increased size and power of finance, especially over corporations, the rules of the economy, and the way we view society. It’s this broader problem that should cause us to worry about the future of work and labor. Only by overcoming this challenge will the economy achieve the innovation and broad-based prosperity it is capable of creating.

When people discuss inequality, they tend to focus on technology, or globalization, or demographics. But recent research has emphasized that the rules of the economy, the laws, regulations, taxes, and practices that structure and influence the markets themselves, are a major generator of inequality. Those rules have consistently been re-written to benefit wealth and finance over everyone else, creating another major challenge for workers.”

In the second article,‘The Future of Work: Exploring the Quality of Work’ University of Minnesota’s Ann Markusen asks us to reconnect with the experience and meaning of work and develop policies and practices aligned with work life quality.

“We have lost track of the whole job, the meaning and experience of work in people’s lives, and how policy and employer practices have demeaned them. And we fail to probe deeply enough into why this is happening, especially shifts in societal norms and the behavior of employers. We should broaden the conversation about work beyond important metrics like labor force participation, unemployment rates, weekly wages, hours worked, and median income to investigate more deeply the quality of work life and its significance for us collectively.”

We could broaden recurrent Bureau of Labor Statistics and state/local employment surveys to cover workplace comfort, safety, flexible leave, quality of manager/peer/customer interactions, pride in one’s work. We could then track changes over time in the quality of work, and by industry, occupation, age, race, and location..More attention to work quality, from researchers, schools, the press, and politicians, will contribute significantly to the future of work in this country.”

One company exploring a new model, ‘Holacracy’ is Zappos. National editor of The Intercept, Roger D. Hodge spent some time with employees and shared his experience in ‘First Let’s Get Rid of All the Bosses’ for The New Republic.

“The contemporary movement of corporate reform, the drive to make the workplace more humane and meaningful, to imbue companies with joy and a higher purpose, will not stand or fall with Zappos. But if it does fail, if Amazon clamps down and assimilates the happy-wacky Zapponian culture and absorbs all those smiles and hugs and high-fives into its vale of tears, the rest of the reform movement will suffer. The stakes are pretty high, at least for people who would prefer not to spend their days in a live-action Dilbert comic strip. Unfortunately, right now it seems that most of the self-organizing and self-actualization at Zappos is being carried out by Hsieh. Everybody else is just following along.”

For half the population, the existing models haven’t worked and folks (women) who aspire to senior positions are trivialized with media labels. Are we surprised when women ‘drop out’? Or amazed at the success of incubator projects developed outside the bounds of the traditional?

Jessica Roy created a list of 28 (if I counted correctly) ceilings in ‘All the Ceilings Women Keep Hitting Their Heads On’.

“If a woman faces sexism in a male-dominated industry but the media doesn’t coin a cutesy nickname for her very real struggle, does it even make a sound? Here, a comprehensive list of all the ceilings women can’t stop hittin’ their heads on…

The glass ceiling: Women in the corporate world.

The stained-glass ceiling: Female Catholic priests.

The grass ceiling: Women in soccer.

Wait, now there’s a broken window we can injure ourselves on? UGH.”

Maggie Lord, the founder and editor of ‘Rustic Wedding Chic’, offered suggestions for those building a business between full time work commitments in an article for Entrepreneur, ‘The Naptime Entrepreneur: Pursuing Your Business in ‘Off Hours”.

“I come from a long line of entrepreneurs, so I knew that with hard work and determination, it was possible to build my own business. That being said, building a business and a family at the same time wasn’t always easy. It’s taken me time to realize that both my son and my business need my attention — but not at the same time. By resolving to be present in either of these priorities when I’m focusing on them, building a brand and a family has been possible.”

Our laws, practices and policies significantly impact our lives @work. But they don’t contain our commitment to change, nor limit the many creative detours we find to navigate around the brick walls.

The Saturday Read – ‘The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World’ by Andrea Wulf

This weekend we celebrate exploration and discovery in recognition of the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Americas. What motivates those who choose a life of adventure and exploration? The ‘Saturday Read’ is the career story of an intrepid pioneer whose curiosity drove him to become one of the most famous of his age.

The ‘Saturday Read’ this week is ‘The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World’ by Andrea Wulf.

I first encountered von Humboldt when reading ‘The Art of Travel’ by Alain de Botton. At the end of a chapter ‘On Curiosity’, de Botton shares a quote attributed to von Humboldt near the end of his life:

“People often say that I’m curious about too many things at once: botany, astronomy, comparative anatomy. But can you really forbid a man from harboring a desire to know and embrace everything that surrounds him?”

Alexander von Humboldt was the master of connecting the dots and lived at a point in time when the multidisciplinary approach fueled exploration and discovery.

“Alexander von Humboldt has been largely forgotten in the English-speaking world. He was one of the last polymaths, and died at a time when scientific disciplines were hardening into tightly fenced and more specialized fields. Consequently his more holistic approach – a scientific method that included art, history, poetry and politics alongside hard data – has fallen out of favour. By the beginning of the twentieth century, there was little room for a man whose knowledge had bridged a vast range of subjects. As scientists crawled into their narrow areas of expertise dividing and further subdividing, they lost Humboldt’s interdisciplinary methods and his concept of nature as a global force. 

One of Humboldt’s greatest achievements had been to make science accessible and popular. Everybody learned from him: farmers and craftsmen, schoolboys and teachers, artists and musicians, scientists and politicians…Unlike Christopher Columbus or Issac Newton, Humboldt did not discover a continent or a new law of physics. Humboldt was not known for a single fact or discovery but for his worldview. His vision of nature has passed into our consciousness as if by osmosis. It is almost as though his ideas have become so manifest that the man behind them has disappeared.”

Today universities scramble to attract students with multidisciplinary offerings, but the silos of academia continue to resist cross-pollinization of knowledge. This is why we need to remove the invisibility cloak from von Humboldt and revisit his curiosity and travel the roads that led to his discoveries.

Author Andrea Wulf wrote an opinion piece for the Los Angeles Times, ‘Alexander von Humboldt: The man who made nature modern’, linking his conclusions to the environmental challenges we face today.

“At a time when scientists were classifying the world into ever smaller taxonomic units, Humboldt regarded Earth as one great living organism in which everything was connected. It was a radically new approach, and it makes him a naturalist hero for the 21st century.”

“With California in the fourth year of serious drought, with forest fires burning, oceans rising and extreme weather spreading havoc, Humboldt deserves to be rediscovered. His interdisciplinary methods and his concept of nature as one of global patterns should underpin our policymaking.

As scientists try to understand and predict the consequences of climate change, Humboldt’s belief in the free exchange of information and in fostering communication across disciplines is vitally important. His insights that social, economic and political issues are closely connected to environmental problems remain resoundingly topical. “Mankind’s mischief …disturbs nature’s order,” he warned, in words as relevant today as they were two centuries ago.”

Alexander von Humboldt’s legacy echoes in the works of John Muir and George Perkins Marsh and in the wild gardens of California where the native ‘Humboldt Lily’ thrives in a dry climate. And now it’s preserved in the words of Andrea Wulf. Enjoy the ‘Saturday Read’ and encourage your children to grow up to be polymaths.

humboldt lily

‘Vocation’ a poem by Sandra Beasley

How many times have you asked someone, What would you like to do next @work? And how often have your received the response, “I’m not sure, but I would like to work with people”. It can be the beginning of an extremely frustrating conversation because there are many ways you can work with people and not all of them pleasant.

The Friday Poem this week is from poet Sandra Beasley’s Barnard Women Poets Prize winning poetry collection, ‘I Was the Jukebox’. In reading the poem, what caught my eye was the twist on the ‘working with people’ ambition in the last lines of the poem.

Her words give voice to all of us who struggle to find our perfect place @work.

“If it calls you, its your calling, right?”

Maybe there’s more to career choice than hearing voices.


For six months I dealt Baccarat in a casino.
For six months I played Brahms in a mall.
For six months I arranged museum dioramas;
my hands were too small for the Paleolithic
and when they reassigned me to lichens, I quit.
I type ninety-one words per minute, all of them
Help. Yes, I speak Dewey Decimal.
I speak Russian, Latin, a smattering of Tlingit.
I can balance seven dinner plates on my arm.
All I want to do is sit on a veranda while
a hard rain falls around me. I’ll file your 1099s.
I’ll make love to strangers of your choice.
I’ll do whatever you want, as long as I can do it
on that veranda. If it calls you, it’s your calling,
right? Once I asked a broker what he loved
about his job, and he said Making a killing.
Once I asked a serial killer what made him
get up in the morning, and he said The people.

Sandra Beasley  ‘I Was the Jukebox: Poems’  2010


What if we approached job search as an adventure?

Take a minute to search the online dictionaries for a definition of the word ‘adventure’. All will include a version of “an ​unusual, ​exciting, and ​possibly ​dangerous ​activity, ​trip, or ​experience, or the ​excitement ​produced by such ​activities”. What if we approached our job search as an adventure?

There are bookcases full of career exploration guides and a plethora of simulation exercises marketed as navigational tools for the job seeker. The industry of career consulting has depreciated the complexity of vocational discovery and led folks to believe that career mysteries can be decoded with minimal effort.

It’s a cookie cutter approach assuming that we know what jobs are out there and know the skill set required for each. What we also know is that the world @work is volatile and many job titles have been retired along with their occupants and many more have evolved with the emergence of new employers.

If you frame your job search as an adventure, your expectations adjust to prepare for the unexpected. Your time frames align with reality. The anticipation of meeting new folks, cataloging what you still need to learn and testing your ambitions @work will catapult you out of bed each morning.

Where do you start? Select an individual who is known for their sense of adventure. Focus on the excitement vs. the danger. Why are they successful?

“To me, adventure has always been the connections and bonds you create with people when you’re there. And you can have that anywhere.” Bear Grylls

Start making the connections – scheduling conversations.The adventure is in the discovery of what you don’t know about work. It’s asking questions, listening and connecting the dots. As you accumulate knowledge, various scenarios begin to emerge in the experience of others.

It’s a lifetime commitment once you open the door to adventure.

Remember what Bilbo used to say: ‘It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”” — J.R.R. Tolkien

Acting is not interviewing

Are you so prepared for your interview that your friends and family would’t recognize you? In an effort to be the best candidate for a job it is possible that you try to ‘game’ the process and ‘act’ your way through the interview? Does your personality somehow get lost in the process?

It’s never a good idea to let the job search process change who you are. If you do, the job offer, if it comes will be based on a false set of impressions. More likely, you will not get the offer because a good recruiter will recognize that something is missing.

I recall a series of interviews I conducted with candidates for an international internship program. One of the finalists met all the criteria on the resume. However, during the interview I was never able to connect. The answers to the questions were all good, but I felt I was talking to someone who was trying to get it right – like trying to ace an exam. There was no ‘there, there’.

I wanted to say. “Let’s start over. Go out the door and come back in. But come back in as you.”

Have you ever anticipated a theater performance only to arrive and find a paper insert in your Playbill announcing ‘actor x will be played by y today’? Your immediate reaction of disappointment is the same a recruiter experiences when they are excited about meeting a potential employee and encounter the understudy.

Don’t lose yourself in the quest for work. Take the time to do your research in preparing for an interview. (If you are not a ’suit’ type you should not be interviewing with ’suit’ requiring organizations. If you don’t want to work in a cubicle, why would you send a resume to a cubicle farm?)

Review your resume prior to sitting down with a recruiter. What do you want to communicate that will connect your unique capabilities with the organization’s needs? Outline, don’t script.

Engage in the conversation. Be ready to follow a tangent at the recruiter’s lead. Listen.

Never abdicate ownership of your job search process. Don’t let anyone try to transform you into a character actor to get a part. If you don’t have to memorize your lines, you will leave room for spontaneity and give the prospective employer a chance to get to know you.

The week@work – Jobs report, valuing low-skilled workers, succession in fashion and another college scorecard

This week@work ended with the release of a disappointing September jobs report. On Thursday, an English instructor and restaurant server in Las Vegas shared her views on the value of unskilled labor. In the world of fashion the transition in leadership at Ralph Lauren was the most publicized succession news, but a number of fashion houses are facing business continuation challenges. And, potential college students have one more metric to use to select a college, the Obama administration’s ‘College Scorecard’.

Patricia Cohen provided a detailed analysis of the September jobs report from the Labor Department.

“The Labor Department found that the jobless rate held steady at 5.1 percent in September, but wage gains stalled, the labor force shrank and employers created many fewer positions than they had been averaging in recent months. While the latest report is only a snapshot of the economy and the weakness may ultimately prove fleeting, it made clear that ordinary workers are still failing to take home the kind of monetary rewards normally expected from a recovery that has being going on for more than six years.”

The low skill areas of the economy continue to be the hardest hit. It’s this group that was the topic of an opinion piece by Brittany Bronson, an English instructor with a perfect view to comment from her other job as a restaurant server. She posed the question, do we value low-skilled work?

“We’re raised, in the culture of American capitalism, to believe certain things, without question, namely that the value of work is defined by the complexity of the task and not the execution of it, that certain types of work are not worthy of devoting a lifetime to.

The labels “low-skilled” or “unskilled” workers — the largest demographic being adult women and minorities — often inaccurately describe an individual’s abilities, but play a powerful role in determining their opportunity. The consequences are not only severe, but incredibly disempowering: poverty-level wages, erratic schedules, the absence of retirement planning, health benefits, paid sick or family leave and the constant threat of being replaced.

…When you witness a great restaurant server or see a particularly effective janitor at work, you aren’t observing a freak talent, but someone who took the time to learn his or her job and improve on it. Now imagine if more “low-skilled” workers were given the compensation, job security and encouragement to do the same.”

The conversation about valuing the work of low skilled labor has recently centered around raising the minimum wage. While important, it plays into the narrative that value is validated by the size of a paycheck. Ms. Bronson addresses the bigger issue.

“But the more difficult challenge is to redefine the language and perceptions that trap large segments of reliable workers in poverty. All work can be executed with skill, but denying that fact is useful to those who justify the poor treatment of, and unfair compensation for, millions of workers.

Convincing those workers that their treatment is temporary, that if they just keep working harder, learn to do their tasks more quickly, more efficiently, more fluidly, they will eventually surpass it — this is a myth we can’t keep telling.”

On the other end of the economic spectrum, Nikki Baird examined the implications of the transition at the Ralph Lauren company as its namesake and leader leaves his chief executive officer position.

“Ralph Lauren, the company, will undergo a critical transition as its namesake founder steps down, to be replaced by the former president of Old Navy , Stefan Larsson. The transition comes at an interesting time for high-end fashion brands, and for the Ralph Lauren brand in particular.

It’s always tricky when a personality-driven brand’s primary personality steps down, though granted in this case, Mr. Lauren will remain the company’s chief creative officer. New blood means new opportunities, and even brands with very established values and specific lifestyle appeal can lose relevancy during a leadership transition.”

“But Ralph Lauren is making this transition in the midst of a much larger change happening within specialty retail, a change driven by the rise of the internet and consumers’ cross-channel shopping behaviors, and exacerbated by consolidation in the department store landscape.”

The challenge of leadership continuation is not restricted to the fashion industry. Many of the changes that have occurred in other business sectors can trace a direct line to disruption from players outside traditional marketing and delivery channels. Now the spotlight shifts to the world of fashion as a generation of designers departs and executive recruiters seek leaders who will be both relevant in imagination and design, and grow revenue in an increasingly competitive global, digital market.

“The question of succession is a pressing one for many major brands, not just labels with leaders d’un certain âge (Karl Lagerfeld, of Chanel and Fendi, is in his 80s; Giorgio Armani, 81). Even among young designers, turnover is a regular occurrence.”

“The responsibilities of branding in a rapidly changing digital age — not necessarily the skills honed in fashion colleges 20 or 30 years ago — have put a new premium on youth and comfort in the digital space.”

“If a brand is not meaningful through the screen, there is very little hope that you can really build a success,” Ms. de Saint Pierre said. “I think we are at a time when the majority of the consumers are coming from non-Western countries. Their education to luxury, their education to brands has not been generational. It has been through a screen. This is a major shift of paradigm for the 21st century, and this is not going to change.”

The last story of this week@work comes from James Stewart, ‘College Rankings Fail to Measure the Influence of the Institution’.

“The bottom line is that no ranking system or formula can really answer the question of what college a student should attend. Getting into a highly selective, top-ranked college may confer bragging rights, status and connections, but it doesn’t necessarily contribute to a good education or lifelong success, financial or otherwise.”

The Saturday Read – ‘Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight’ by Margaret Lazarus Dean

“Even before the last launches, NASA had announced the final destinations for each of the orbiters – Endeavor to the California Science Center in Los Angeles…”

On Friday, September 21 at 11:59 AM, the Space Shuttle Endeavor flew over Los Angeles and the campus of the University of Southern California. It was completing it’s 26th mission atop a Boeing 747 with a flyover of locations where workers had designed the spacecraft,  built and assembled parts, and tracked it’s 25 earth orbit missions. On that morning, in LA, Endeavor was the Hollywood star as thousands stood on rooftops to catch a glimpse of the final flight.IMG_0534

Today visitors can view the Endeavor in a temporary pavilion. It’s in a museum, a relic of a dream to build spacecraft in low earth orbit that would transport humans to Mars. The story of how we journeyed from the ‘heroic era’ of space travel to the last shuttle flight is told by Margaret Lazarus Dean in this week’s Saturday Read – ‘Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight’. It’s a narrative constructed to introduce us to the workers who enabled the success of NASA, while at the same time recognizing the courage of the astronauts,

On Wednesday the U.S. National Archives tweeted a copy of President John F. Kennedy’s confidential spaceflight schedule.CQAQyZ8UAAA725tOnce we had arrived at the moon, the plan was to begin construction of a vehicle to travel to Mars by 1975. What happened?

“When we think about the Apollo project now, we think of it as being a time when all Americans were united behind a project they could take pride in. The fact is that Americans were slowly falling out of love with Apollo right from the beginning. Even before Neil, Buzz and Mike made it to the moon, only about a third of Americans thought the moon project was worth the cost. At the same time, a clear majority of Americans throughout the sixties said that they approved of Apollo; in other words, uneasiness about the cost of spaceflight has always been paired with widespread positive feelings about spaceflight. This contradiction has made NASA the site of one of the deeper ambiguities of American culture: spaceflight is an achievement we take great pride in, paid for with our own money, over our objections.”

The author’s story is shared through the lens of a family of workers at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It’s a connection that began with an email about her first novel, continued on Facebook and provided access to facilities and events at the center. As the shuttle program is coming to an end, these employees retain their optimism, as colleagues are being laid off. With the end of the shuttle program NASA has disconnected from its institutional memory, the bridge to transfer knowledge to the next generation of space architects and engineers.

Ms. Dean is an associate professor at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. One of the more interesting sections of the book chronicles her interactions with her students about the history of spaceflight and her adventures to view the last three shuttle launches. These conversations reveal another disconnect; a loss of our historical memory of spaceflight.

She was a teenager when the Challenger exploded, and missed the early years of the space program and competition with the USSR to be the first to the moon. But she fills the gap with the words of writers who witnessed the historic events.

“The books that mean the most to me are the firsthand accounts, the people who grapple with what they have seen and experienced, and by doing so take on the emotional meaning of spaceflight…Tom Wolfe undertook to grasp the courage of the astronauts and uncovered a brotherhood that is both unprecedented and ageless. Oriana Fallaci was an Italian journalist who traveled to Houston, Huntsville, and the Cape at the height of the excitement for Apollo but before the success of the moon landing…(and) Norman Mailer’s book about witnessing the launch of Apollo 11…”

In recent weeks there seems to be an uptick in the discussion of space travel. The movie ‘The Martian’ has reignited a conversation about travel to Mars. The filmmakers worked closely with NASA to ensure credibility in the storytelling.

Jeff Bezos is moving his space exploration company, Blue Origin, to Florida where he will operate manufacturing and testing centers as well as launch rockets from Cape Canaveral’s Complex 36. Elon Musk’s SpaceX continues to design, manufacture and launch advanced rockets and spacecraft with a goal to send people to other planets.

“The story of American spaceflight is a story with many endings.”

The workplace of space is evolving. ‘Leaving Orbit’ is required reading to reclaim our history and institutional memory.

‘Poet’s work’ a poem by Lorine Niedecker

Do you remember the first bit of career advice you received from a grown-up? Poet Lorine Niedecker captured the advice given to her and her subsequent career choice in ‘Poet’s Work’ this week’s Friday Poem. “She is admired for the subtlety of her tightly crafted, nuanced and deliciously ironic poems, as well as for her total devotion to her calling.”

The biographical summary on the Poetry Foundation site describes the work of this twentieth century rural Wisconsin poet.

“Niedecker’s verse is praised for its stark, vivid imagery, subtle rhythms, and spare language…Concerned with the distillation of images and thoughts into concise expression, Niedecker described her work as a “condensery,” and several critics have compared her poetry to the delicate yet concrete verse of Chinese and Japanese writers. Although Niedecker’s long correspondence with Louis Zukofsky, who frequently submitted her poems to the journal, Origin, and contact with such respected writers as Cid Corman and Basil Bunting, brought her some critical notice, her work was generally overlooked until late in her life. Since her death in 1970, several critics have identified Niedecker as a significant and original voice in contemporary American poetry.”

Poet’s work

advised me:
Learn a trade

I learned
to sit at desk
and condense

No layoff
from this

A complete collection of her work was published by The University of California Press in 2004.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

Where do the remnants of your childhood dreams reside? In the back of a closet? In a pile of boxes in a storage locker? In the memory of a childhood hero? Or, is there a kernel of that imagined life germinating in your days @work?

When we get stuck in our careers it makes sense to step back and imagine our work in the eyes of a five year old. Most of us are probably not dressed in the costumes of our earliest aspirations, but taking a look back at a photo of our pre-school self might provide the starting point for redirecting our career GPS.

We spend a lot of time in our lives fulfilling the expectations of others. In school we excel to please teachers and parents, we compete to attend the ‘right’ college to impress our peers, and we contend with other candidates to land the ‘best’ job offer. The process can become an end in itself, and one day we are sitting at our desk wondering how we arrived.

Rewind. What did you want to be when you grew up? Is there an element of that wish that links to the career decision maker you are today?

Maybe the opportunity to be the prima ballerina with the New York City Ballet is no longer an option, but could your dream of the dance connect with an alternative artistic career choice?

Start with small steps. Talk to people who actually are @work in your imagined dream job. What’s the reality? Could you test your interest with an internship or volunteer experience before you abandon your current source of revenue?

When we are young our career fantasies are limitless. We haven’t encountered any opposition to our imagination. That picture of our five year old self is a ‘screen shot’ of us before brick walls. Adults didn’t take our plans too seriously and encouraged our wildest dreams.

Now, you are the adult, looking at the photo of yourself BBW (before brick walls). What has happened over time between that image and today’s selfie? Maybe it’s time for the two of you to have a conversation about what’s next.