My father retired a few months ago from his job as a research scientist at the National Institutes of Health. He arrived at the NIH just after medical school residency and stayed more than 45 years, most of it in the same lab in the same building. My mother had retired a year earlier after 45 years as an English professor at George Washington University. Between them, that’s nearly a century of work experience—virtually all of it interesting, rewarding, and productive—without a single career change.
I must have inherited The Organization Man gene from my parents: I’ve been at Slate for more than 15 years, approximately four lifetimes in Internet journalism. This kind of tranquil career—once the norm for Americans—is disappearing. Globalization began unsettling traditional careers a generation ago, and the Great Recession has accelerated the trend. The traditional path from college to and up the corporate ladder hasn’t yet vanished, but the ladder is splintered and wobbly.
Americans once relied on great institutions—large corporations, unions, government agencies—to guard them from economic risk. Not anymore. Recent graduates face the worst job prospects in 75 years: The unemployment rate for young adults nears 20 percent, and only 48 percent of Americans age 16-24 are working, the lowest figure ever recorded. It’s arguably worse for Americans in their prime working years: Layoffs and industry shakeups have stranded millions of older workers who had expected long and placid careers.
But this peril is also a fantastic opportunity, approached in the right way. Both recent graduates and mid-careerists are coming to realize that you can’t simply expect to get a job anymore. You have to make one for yourself. The Organization Man has given way to the You Economy. (See The Start-Up of You: Adapt to the Future, Invest in Yourself, and Transform Your Career or You, Inc.: The Art of Selling Yourself, or …) Becoming independent and successful requires an entrepreneurial spirit, a willingness to patch together multiple part-time opportunities, the persistence to volunteer in an organization you admire in hopes of turning it into a real job, or the courage to launch your own venture.
This new world is both uncertain and exhilarating. The likelihood of failure is high: Half of all startups fail in five years, and of those that succeed, very few become Facebook or Apple. Independence is financially risky and exhausting, as anyone who has cobbled together gigs or tried to open a coffee shop can tell you. But it also offers the prospect of personal freedom and wealth, the certain liberation from career dreariness, and the thrill of risk-taking. The recession may have savaged the job prospects of millions of Americans, but it has also caused a surge of entrepreneurship: The rate of startup creation is the highest it has been in 15 years.
Which brings us to Invent Your Future, a Slate Hive project. We’ll spend the next four weeks gathering, sharing, and highlighting your best ideas and stories about how to make (or remake) an independent working life in a time of economic uncertainty. This is the latest of our Hive projects. The Hive is Slate’s way of harnessing the tremendous wisdom, intelligence, and experience of you, our readers. In our Hive projects, we ask for your help in trying to tackle a problem, inviting you to come up with solutions or give advice to fellow readers. In the case of Invent Your Future, we’re asking you to submit, via an easy form, your best ideas, advice, and stories for people trying to make careers for themselves in an uncertain world.
Readers can comment and vote on all the submitted ideas, and during the course of the month-long project, I and other Slate editors will call out particularly compelling or moving ideas and write about them. At the end of the month, we bet, we’ll have an incredible collection of stories that inspire and a wonderful set of Slate-vetted tips, tricks, skills, and habits that can help anyone making an independent career for himself, or starting a business.
What exactly could you submit?
- If you’ve started a business, tell the single most important skill you needed to do it.
- If you figured out how to string together gigs into a successful career, share your best tip for managing your time.
- If you struck out on your own and failed, tell us the most important thing you learned from that failure.
- Tell us the one thing you wish you’d been told before you opened your business.
- Tell us the one skill every new entrepreneur needs before she opens for business.
- Tell us how you turned volunteer work or a hobby into a fruitful career.
- Tell us the best habit you developed to prevent yourself from getting lonely or to keep yourself from procrastinating.
- Finally, tell us a story: As much as any specific advice, others want to hear stories of success (and failure), stories that can inspire and guide them as they invent their own futures. Tell us yours.
Please share the wisdom you have with your fellow Slate readers, and help them make the jump into this unsteady, but exhilarating, world.
Please contribute. We welcome your tips, advice, skills, and stories—funny and serious, practical and psychological, of failure and success.
Photo credits for Invent Your Future Hive: Graduate by Creatas Images. Working group by Fabrice Michaudeau. Man adjusting his tie in the mirror by Digital Vision. Businessman cleaning out his desk by Jupiterimages/Getty Images. Woman talking by Design Pics/Design Pics CEF/Thinkstock Images. Man typing by Jupiterimages/Thinkstock Images. Students in classroom by Alexander Raths/iStockphoto. Woman volunteer by Lisa F. Young/iStockphoto. Cash by Oleg Kalina/iStockphoto. Person knitting by Jupiterimages/Getty Images. Woman walking into a store by Ryan McVay/Thinkstock Images. Person pointing by Creatas Images/Thinkstock Images. Man yawning by Todd Warnock/Thinkstock Images. Man looking at a clock by Stockbyte/Thinkstock Images. Two men networking by Jacob Wackerhausen/iStockphoto. Man in suit leaping by Pixland/Thinkstock Images.