Think for a moment of the story of Scheherazade, the spinner of yarns to the sultan over 1,001 nights, somewhere in Arabia. You and me and pretty much everyone who works in this country are essentially in her position. American workers today, says Rita Gunther McGrath, a professor of strategy at Columbia, have to face the fact that the workplace is increasingly dominated by employers who will either have use for you for now, or no use for you at all.
McGrath will be the keynote speaker at Einstein’s Alley Institute’s conference, “The Future of Work – Part 4,” on Monday, March 5, from 3 to 6 p.m. at the Crossroads Corporate Center, 3150 Brunswick Pike in Lawrence. Joining McGrath with be organizational transition specialist Ron Boire. Cost: $75. Visit www.einsteinsalley.org.
McGrath will speak on “Talent Deployment in a Tour of Duty World.” If that sounds like a really military way of describing the gig economy, you’re mostly right. The difference is that the gig economy refers more to one-off assignments, whereas the tour of duty economy describes contract work, usually for set periods of time.
McGrath was raised in a German-speaking and very scientific home. Her father was an organic chemist, her mother a microbiologist. Both parents were born in Germany but met in Great Britain before emigrating to the U.S.
The family settled near Rochester, New York, when Rita was eight years old; her father worked for Xerox and then for Kodak.
McGrath graduated from Barnard College in 1981 with a degree in political science. She later earned a master’s in public administration from Columbia. She and a partner started a political consulting business, assembling primary voting lists and other data during the early days of personal computers and desktops.
Later she became a project manager of computer-related design for New York City’s online procurement system. That was when she went back to earn her doctorate from the Wharton School. In 1993 McGrath joined the faculty of Columbia.
About that Scheherazade analogy: In “1,001 Arabian Nights,” harem girl Scheherazade told tales to amuse a cruel and chronically bored sultan who would bring entertainers to his throne every night. They would invariably amuse him briefly and then, off with their heads. Scheherazade figured out that if she kept telling compelling tales of adventure and left the sultan wanting more, she would stay alive.
“Employers have proven over and over again that they’re not loyal to people,” says McGrath. “If you’re smart, you’re going to make yourself employable.”
For some that means constantly updating the resume with new certifications or degrees or training. For others it means plying a set of skills to whoever needs them most for now. For all, it means the reality that as the century continues employers are going to look more and more at highly specialized temps.
Like anything, there’s good and bad in the tour of duty economy, McGrath says. On the negative side, for workers, at least, there is the lack of security and certainty. Gone are the post-World War II days when you got a job, worked it your whole life, and got a pension. Today, with the cost of benefits and full-time staffs, employers who work from project to project have little motivation to bring on permanent staff they will just have to let go in a few months.
But on the positive side, workers and employers don’t just outright divorce anymore, McGrath says.
“Traditionally, if someone left, you’d put their stuff in a box and never see them again,” she says. Today the relationships between workers and employers is more fluid, “more porous.” And loyalties have shifted as well.
“People are more loyal to who they work with than who they work for,” McGrath says. In other words, the tour of duty environment thrives on relationships. Project managers and employers like to keep working with people they know and with people they know work well with each other. It is not uncommon to have the same cast of characters return for multiple projects, like an ensemble band.
Just not a gigging band. More like Wayne Newton, with a standing schedule in Vegas.
This dynamic, McGrath says, is rooted in competitive advantage. But in the tour-of-duty world competitive advantage is not what it used to be. Not for workers, anyway. Here, she says, the competitive advantage is to build personal brand recognition through relationships and a history of performance. The competitive advantage, in other words, goes to those who can keep making themselves indispensable to sultan.
McGrath says that women over 50 are one group of workers who are doing dazzlingly well in the tour-of-duty economy. Women in the age range, in fact, are “seeing an absolute flowering.” The kids are grown and the women themselves are deeply experienced workers who already know how to navigate outside the bounds of a traditional office — which, McGrath says, has historically been set up to cater best to the male life cycle.
And if you’re thinking that older people have a big disadvantage when it comes to technology compared to younger people who grew up with it, McGrath doesn’t agree with you.
“Older people learn as quickly as young people,” she says of tech in the workplace. “I don’t think age is really a factor at all.”
If anything, McGrath says, it’s not that people need to reverse their aging, it’s that companies need to ditch the long-held heuristics that define how they look for workers and what they value from them. Take bachelors degrees, for example. Plenty of companies are requiring college degrees now to get a job at the receptionist’s desk. Up until that became a thing, McGrath says, 65 percent of receptionists did not, in fact, have a degree, “and they did fine.”
Companies are demanding degrees for a simple reason, she says — they need to thin the herd, so they set these markers down to weed out volumes of candidates. But the criteria can be arbitrary, and both applicants and companies are missing out on potentially rewarding career paths because of this attachment to the way things have always been done.
When McGrath looks at the future of work, she sees anything but the way it was. There aren’t likely to be jobs people hold for 40 years and retire forever with a gold watch and a pension. The tour-of-duty world, she says is fraught with challenges and bustling with opportunity. And workers would be wise to pay attention to the dynamic because it’s happening.
“I don’t think it’s going to change,” she says. “Not at all.”