Escaping the Rat-Race

The changing nature of work doesn’t just matter to new graduates seeking their first career-track job—it’s equally important to experienced workers seeking to escape the corporate rat-race or build a new career after a layoff.

Those who understand these changes will be able to successfully adapt. Those who don’t, won’t.

The Disruptive Forces Transforming the Economy

There are three fundamental forces disrupting the conventional order, and everyone with their eyes open sees them at work every day:

1.  Essential resources are becoming more expensive.

2.  The system of expanding credit/debt to fund more consumption (i.e. “growth”) has reached marginal returns and is failing.

3.  Networked software, automation and robotics are reducing the need for human labor on a global scale.

As a result of these three structural forces, economic instability is not going to go away any time soon.  Technology leapfrogs the obsolete and inefficient; no wonder conventional sectors and the market for traditional 9-to-5 jobs are both stagnating.

The realization that ever-expanding debt and consumption are unsustainable has given rise to a new understanding of the economy called Degrowth (French: décroissance, Spanish: decrecimiento, Italian: decrescita).

From the perspective of sustainable prosperity, growth based on ever-expanding debt-based consumption is the road to ruin.

This shift from debt-based consumption to a more productive sustainability is bringing profound changes to the nature of work itself and social arrangements in the workplace.

Though we can’t foresee all the ramifications of networked software, automation and robotics, we can predict one aspect of this systemic disruption: technology will disrupt the most expensive, least efficient sectors of the economy because that’s where the greatest reductions in cost can be reaped.

In our economy, these are healthcare, education, government and national defense, all traditionally viewed as stable sectors with guaranteed job security.   That is changing, as the soaring costs of these sectors now exceed the economy’s ability to fund them.  If an economy expands by 2% each year and healthcare costs rise by 5% each year, eventually healthcare runs out of oxygen—there isn’t enough income generated by the economy to fund its continued expansion.

Few “experts”—academics, pundits and advisors—have accepted the reality of these forces or thought through the interacting consequences. As a result, we’re on our own in setting a course and navigating the inevitable storms ahead as the old system lurches from crisis to crisis, weakening further as every politically expedient reform fails to address these structural realities.

Outmoded Career Advice Is the Norm

Though the transformative power of these three forces is self-evident, remarkably, conventional career counseling is still stuck in the past, offering three basic bits of advice:

1.  Choose a career that aligns with your core talents and interests.

2.  Get as many credentials as you can -- degrees, certifications, etc. -- because the gatekeepers who do the hiring require them.

3.  Since the goal is secure employment, try to get a job in the government or a big corporation.

In my view, the conventional advice has it all backward. What worked in the past is no longer working because the economy and the nature of work are both being disrupted by forces that cannot be controlled by those threatened by these fundamental changes. 

In the conventional view, a college degree prepares one to enter the workforce. This is no longer true, as higher education has largely failed to keep pace with technology and a fast-changing economy.

As for adding more credentials to keep ahead of the pack—degree inflation dooms this strategy for all but the few who manage to secure multiple degrees from elite universities. And even this is no guarantee of lifetime security for everyone, as the number of open slots in gatekeeper-dominated institutions is much smaller than the rapidly expanding pool of over-credentialed applicants.

What matters more than credentials is the ability to keep learning new skills over one’s entire productive life.

And while it’s certainly solid advice to align one’s work with one’s talents and interests, even this advice misses the key dynamics of the emerging economy—which I define as  the parts of the economy that are thriving on innovation rather than depending on cheap credit and asset bubbles for their survival.

The thriving parts of the economy rely less on gatekeepers and credentials and more on skills, flexibility, professionalism, mastery and networks of collaboration.

In the emerging economy, security arises not from institutional promises but from a diversity of skills and income streams and a flourishing network of other trustworthy, productive people.

As a result, the goal for jobseekers isn’t just to identify one’s talents and interests but to acquire a diverse suite of flexible skills and a network that enables you to put these skills to good use.

In this view, work isn’t what you do between 9 and 5: it’s a lifestyle informed by a flexible, open perspective and guided by entrepreneurial values.

In terms of values, conventional career advice is based on the idea that happiness and fulfillment require institutional security and ever more consumption. But the more we learn about happiness and fulfillment, the more apparent it becomes that family, community, meaningful work and networks of trustworthy collaborators and friends are the sources of happiness and fulfillment, not the accumulation of institutional promises and more stuff, which turns out to have little impact on happiness or fulfillment.

The Dynamics of Economic Transformation

Capitalism and technology are both disruptive by their very nature.  That mature industries shrink or disappear is not the fault of one policy or another; that process of creative destruction (a term coined by economist Joseph Schumpeter) is the heart of capitalism and technology.

Many have attempted to keep technology safely locked up so it can’t creatively destroy their regime or industry. But technology is a genie that cannot be kept in the bottle. To quote Bob Dylan:  those not busy being born are busy dying.  Every nation or industry that tries to protect itself from technological transformation either stagnates or fails.

One aspect of capitalism that disturbs many people is the mobile nature of capital—that capital will flow to the highest return, regardless of national borders or religious, national and ideological loyalties.

Though many attribute this mobility to base greed, capital that doesn’t seek to expand will fall victim to creative destruction: the only way innovation and productive investment can occur is if less productive investments and quasi-monopolies are dismantled.

This is true not just of financial capital (cash), but of human and social capital—what author Peter Drucker called the new means of production in the knowledge-based economy.

This will have implications for every worker seeking to escape the corporate rat-race or build a career.

One feature of capitalism that is rarely noted is the premium placed on cooperation. The Darwinian aspects of competition are widely accepted (and rued) as capitalism’s dominant force, but cooperation is just as intrinsic to capitalism as competition. Subcontractors must cooperate to assemble a product, suppliers must cooperate to deliver the various components, distributors must cooperate to get the products to retail outlets, employees and managers must cooperate to reach the goals of the organization, and local governments and communities must cooperate with enterprises to sustain the local economy.

Darwin’s understanding of natural selection is often misapplied. In its basic form, natural selection simply means that the world is constantly changing, and organisms must adapt or they will expire. This dynamic is scale-invariant, meaning that it’s true for individuals, enterprises, governments, cultures and economies. Darwin wrote: "It is not the strongest of the species that survives, or the most intelligent, but the ones most adaptable to change."

These new ideas, techniques and processes trigger changes in society and the economy that are difficult to predict. The key survival trait is not so much the ability to guess the future correctly but to remain flexible and adaptive.

Ideas, techniques and processes which are better and more productive than previous versions will spread quickly; those who refuse to adapt them will be overtaken by those who do.

This creates a dilemma: we want more prosperity and wider opportunities for self-cultivation (personal fulfillment), yet we don’t want our security to be disrupted. But we cannot have it both ways. Those who attempt to preserve the current order while reaping the gains of free markets find their security dissolving before their eyes as unintended consequences of technological and social innovations disrupt their sources of wealth and mechanisms of control.

The great irony of free-market capitalism is that the only way to establish an enduring security is to embrace innovation and adaptation, the very processes that generate short-term insecurity. Attempting to guarantee security leads to risk being distributed within the system. When the accumulated risk manifests, the system collapses.

Why This Matters

Why do these characteristics of free-market capitalism matter to jobseekers?  Opportunity is not randomly distributed; it results from what I call the infrastructure of opportunity. If there is no mobility of labor and capital, no transparent markets for labor and capital, no creative destruction of corrupt, obsolete, inefficient systems, weak rule of law, weak property rights, no self-organizing (i.e. transparent, decentralized) access to credit, limited means of cooperation, little room for innovation and no understanding of the essential role of risk in adaptation, opportunities for successful adaptation (what we might call prosperity) are intrinsically scarce. Virtually all bets made in this environment will be lost because there is no fertile ground—it’s a desert for opportunity.

In Part 2: How The Nature Of Work Is Changing, we explore the changing nature of work and what skills and values tilt the odds in our favor.

Click here to read Part 2 of this report. (Free executive summary. Enrollment required for full access)

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

Good luck finding a job without the proper credentials when there are 40+ people applying for the same job. The job market is fierce right now.

Hi WT:
I think that's the point of my essay–the higher probability of success strategy is to opt out of the numbers game entirely, as the odds of 'winning" the credentials competition are very low. I just spoke with an academic who told us there are 300-400 applicants for any open position. Every one of those applicants has a wealth of credentials. 

We've been brainwashed into thinking establishing your own network and livelihood is risky, but it starts looking pretty good compared to the near-zero odds of winning the "you're under-credentialed/over-credentialed" game. here is a related link:
Can't Get a Job From an Algorithm, or So It Seems as Hot Resumes Go Nowhere Fast

I've written a lot of personal emails looking for work doing anything with databases. Over the past couple months I've been learning new software and have acquired a lot of skills that companies need. I guess my plan was to move from something I'm good at (labor/kitchen) to something I'm great at that pays more. I had a pretty nice part-time gig where I got to play with GIS all day and make maps, but the pay was less than what I made the other job and I had the opportunity to go full-time+  at the kitchen so I went with that. Also it was at about the time when I went into full-blown depression that the world was coming to an end so the kitchen job made sense as well.I regret not maintaining a relationship with that office job though. Now that I want to get back into office work, working in a kitchen for the last couple years does not look good. The problem is there are not a lot of entry-level jobs to be found and my background is in the environmental sciences which is not desired by most organizations. I'm pretty talented with data and it's a shame for me to not be able to apply those skills and make money from it. Visual learning/interpretation is something I do better than most people which helps with data analysis and I actually really enjoy that work. I also have programming and modeling skills that are sought after so it's surprising to me that it's so challenging toget some bites/
My point I guess is that looking for a job is miserable. 
If anybody needs some data cleaned/analyzed/modeled I work cheap! That's the other thing too, data is sensitive stuff, so it's tough marketing as an independent analyst. Especially without a lot of professional experience.
Oh well. Onto the next thing. 

I am always wary of offering any advice because it's awfully easy to offer advice that may or may not be useful/appropriate. Nonetheless, as someone who has walked the walk (self-employment, switching careers, moving to another state, pursuing hybrid work, etc.) for decades, I am speaking from the trenches, so to speak, not some protected position in an Ivory Tower or think-tank.
I wonder if there are some community groups who could use your expertise.  You may have to do the first project for free, but hey, if you pick an organization with similar values/goals, that wouldn't be too painful. That way, you can establish your abilities in the real world and maybe make some contacts that lead to paying work.

This is why I am always talking about the strength of weak ties–the bigger the network you nurture, the more likely it is that somebody on the margins will need your abilities.

It's very tough to start over in a new place or new career but community groups, churches, etc. are a good place to start building a network and verifiable skills.

I know this sounds mundane but it's worked for me–and when I was younger, driving around looking for jobsites that might need my skills.

[quote=charleshughsmith]I am always wary of offering any advice because it's awfully easy to offer advice that may or may not be useful/appropriate. Nonetheless, as someone who has walked the walk (self-employment, switching careers, moving to another state, pursuing hybrid work, etc.)for decades, I am speaking from the trenches, so to speak, not some protected position in an Ivory Tower or think-tank.
I wonder if there are some community groups who could use your expertise.  You may have to do the first project for free, but hey, if you pick an organization with similar values/goals, that wouldn't be too painful. That way, you can establish your abilities in the real world and maybe make some contacts that lead to paying work.
This is why I am always talking about the strength of weak tiesthe bigger the network you nurture, the more likely it is that somebody on the margins will need your abilities.
It's very tough to start over in a new place or new career but community groups, churches, etc. are a good place to start building a network and verifiable skills.
I know this sounds mundane but it's worked for me–and when I was younger, driving around looking for jobsites that might need my skills.
I must admit, when I first read your advice Charles, I said to myself, he is offering "old paradigm" career advice which is exactly what his essay was trying to show was no longer valid.
Then, I thought about it, and re-read WT's entry. Perhaps, it is some of the "new" job seeking skills that are what need to be looked at, not the other way around (at least in the job hunting). Sending emails, texts, phone calls is all good. How does the phrase go, "Even a blind squirrel finds a nut once-in-a-while." However, all of those things are too easy to hide behind for employers. They use their "resume algorithms" to weed out "under or unqualified" applicants. They use phone interviews to try and tell if an applicant is a good fit. (Ok for a telemarketer I guess) It is truly a shame, I wonder how many talented individuals aren't even looked at.
Personal contact, face to face - where they can't say no is the best way to go. How do you get there? Just as Charles said, NETWORK - (I do hate that word) get out and offer your services - for free if necessary at first to a community organization (try a free clinic) meet people,TALK to them, do not TEXT them.
Like Charles, I have had different jobs in different states and even complete career changes. (4 and counting) Age is now becoming my newest obstacle to overcome. That said, I am changing my skill set to meet those obstacles. "Life long learning" is a phrase I first heard in the late eighties. Back then I thought, "what a load of crap!" I was wrong, the only thing that stays the same is change.
Adapt or die.

Thank you for this great offering. I also want to put in a plug for your book, "Get a Job, Build a Real Career, Defy a Bewildering Economy."  It is the most sensible, helpful career book I have ever read and really empowers us to think differently about our work lives.  I particularly like the Eight Essential Skills of Professionalism.

In support of this need to transition how we think about work, I came across an article about a website called TaskRabbit .  What's interesting to me about the article in addition to learning about a site where you can quickly "lackeys on demand" is that two weeks ago they changed the fundamentals of their business model.  They went from a system where "taskers" competed with each other by bidding for work.  Now instead each Tasker is assigned an hourly rate and they are offered a task electronically based on some proprietary TaskRabbit algorithm.  If they can't commit within 30 minutes, they lose the opportunity and it moves onto someone else.  Wow!



This has been around for a while and it's quite interesting to see the types of work or jobs that are being sourced:

Wildlife Tracker-
I'm currently working in IT (saving/earning some more money before we head back overseas next year), and I've noticed while there are a fair number of opportunities in the field there are two big things that makes finding a decent position hard.

The first is not all locations are equal; where I'm at currently in the Denver area has a lot of opportunities around, but I have friends in other similar sized cities that see a lot less IT jobs around.

The second is that a majority of positions are looking for very specific combinations of skills, credentials, and experience, to the point of being unrealistic sometimes. I keep my eye out for other positions (just in case I see something really good or my company's contract ends earlier than expected), and I frequently find positions that I'd be a good fit for, but there's always some specific requirement in the job req that I don't have. And I'd say at least half the time the requirement usually falls in the realm of experience, and it's something that's easy to develop or learn on the job. The reasons for this I think are twofold. One, even though it's not too bad off compared to other job markets, in some places IT is still an employers' market and they can afford to be picky. Two, and this especially applies to larger companies and government agencies, the HR departments tend to be complete and total idiots when it comes to approving candidates for continuing down the interview process. The 'resume algorithm' process is part of that idiocy, but quite often the flesh & blood reviewers are part of the problem too. In my years with a large defense contractor that I shall not name, we had a number of applicants that our team AND the manager wanted to interview and/or hire but the HR department would dig in their heels and say "They don't have (insert HR requirement here) so no can do". These were people we knew could do the job because we already knew them and their skills or knew they had prior related experience in the military, but HR didn't care because they didn't fit a requirement that didn't really matter (usually it was a Bachelor's degree requirement).

One thing I've noticed recently is the prevalence of recruiters advertising positions on a W2 or contract-to-(potential)hire basis instead of for full-time permanent positions. I suspect this is in reaction to Obamacare and other bureaucratic obstacles, and allows the employers to get around some of those restrictions and allow them to easily dismiss a contract employee if it turns out they can't do the job. The plus side to this is it has appeared to me that going through a recruiter sometimes gets around the obstacle that HR departments often represent. I got my current job through a recruiting company on a contract-to-hire basis, and while the contract period didn't have any benefits, it was only 6 months before going from that to permanent hire. So if you haven't already, post your resume on or the like and actively seek out the W2 and contract positions through recruiters in addition to the regular employers. The downside of it is you may get a lot of emails and calls from recruiters who are the reverse end of the HR idiocy mentioned earlier, who end up contacting you simply because your resume had some of the skill or technical buzzwords that match a position (but if they had only read the resume completely they'd see it's not a match for the position). Still, better to have that than no emails or calls at all right?

I wholeheartedly agree with Charles in that the professional employment game is one that's getting increasingly dysfunctional and where credentials are becoming of increasingly outweighted value compared to actual skills. My situation is a good example of it; I have some experience and proficiency in IT, but it's only my fall-back or secondary skillset. And yet the mere fact that I have a Bachelor's in a technical field (and not even one directly related to IT or computer science) and a handful of IT certifications gets me more calls and emails from recruiters than anything else I suspect. I think the same 'credentials' played an equally big part in getting an interview with my current employer. But even despite that I've still seen the credentials inflation blocking me from otherwise suitable positions. The worst are the engineering jobs requiring Masters degrees for entry or mid-level positions (used to be engineers only got Masters and PhD's if they were going into something particularly specialized, or teaching). If I go back for an engineering Masters degree I want it to be for the sake of learning new skills or exploring new fields of research, not to satisfy HR's or upper management's arbitrary requirement. Anyway I see the necessity for some of us to play along with some of this nonsense for now, but only long enough to transition to something where we have more control over our lives. Because the trend is likely only to get worse, not better. I'm keeping my sanity at my current dysfunctional job by just telling myself, "just X more months and then I'm off this infernal hamster wheel!" wink

Some of the software they require really sometimes only takes a short period of time to get comfortable with, yet if you don't have that software experience they discredit your abilities. Human Resources might be my new favorite thing to hate. Even more so than the Fed ;) 

That is a very interesting option. Very low pay, but nice filler and mindless tasks in the event that somebody wants to do that. I will probably actually do some of those tasks  because it's a nice "filler" opportunity. Thanks 

Actually Karl Marx wrote about creative destruction decade before Shumpeter. confronted with the truth he denied ever reading Das Kapitaal , the most influential book of his time. Talk about creative stealing

Charles,I've read many articles/essays from your web site. I find your thinking/topics outside of the box, and I like your writing style.This article, which touches on how hard it is to get that great job simply because of a college degree for example, has a lot of truth in it. There are still a few institutions for which a degree with a "B" average still gets one a job. But the schools are few, hard to get into, and fields of study are so difficult/boring for most students that the numbers degreed are few indeed. My daughter is at Ga. Tech. Employers are still hiring virtually all Ga. Tech engineering graduates with a "B" average. That said my daughter chose another major there, so we will see how she fares with job offers.

Thank you to everyone who posted–all excellent info/experience. 
RNCarl, you make a very important point–face-time in the real world. here's an example of opportunities I see in the advantages of real-world meetings. A lot of small businesses have zero social media presence, and they know they should have some but they don't know how to do it/design a campaign and sustain it, and they don't want to hire some remote online company.

Somebody who sits down with them and figures out how their business actually works and how social media can help will get the job.  Somebody who gets a dozen such clients will probably be able to make a decent living. Getting out into the real world gives anyone a leg up.

I mention community groups because these are networks that already exist. 

Suzie, thank you for the kind words about my book and also for informing us how the Task Rabbit model has changed. This is one way to earn some money and gain experience. 

Nickbert, your post offers a wealth of grounded advice. Being hired by a recruiter as a contract workers is certainly one model to get work and bypass absurd HR requirements–the recruiter gets paid if you're hired, so they become your advocate.  As for HR, like much of the bureaucracy that characterizes our economy, seeks to justify its budget by blocking as much as it can and controlling as much as it can. (No offense to those working in HR, but this is what I hear from corp. managers).

Data on job creation suggests established Corporate America firms are not creating jobs except overseas.  Small biz also struggles, as new small biz often just replace those than fail/close. The job creators are new companies that scale up quickly. Common sense suggests seeking companies that fit this profile if you don't want to pursue self-employment.

Tesher, interesting point about Marx. Yes, he described the dynamism of capitalism very succinctly, and how it dismantles social relations, not just economic relations. I do reference Marx quite often, for example re: alienation of work, etc.

DC, that is an interesting data point re: GT. Engineers may be demand, especially in robotics, software, network security, etc., but the other sciences (biochem, for example) are not as in demand as the PR about STEM suggests. the higher one moves up the credential food chain, the fewer the slots.  So people who got PhDs in biochem are finding the openings are few and the competition fierce.  There are no magic bullet credentials left because everybody has the same information.  That said, having the skills to create value with robotics, automation, software, network security, etc., are certainly skills that will be in demand.

Charles,The wise thing for someone to do who is graduating with a B.S. degree from Ga. Tech or any school…try to get a job with that degree rather than racking up more debt thinking that a masters degree will do the trick. Now if someone is going into teaching they will need a master's degree eventually; even to teach in the public schools. But public school teachers aren't gravitating towards science/technology/engineering oriented schools like Ga. Tech. It is brutally hard. My daughter finishes her last exam this Wednesday and will try the job market. She is confident she will be offered a job and that's better than no confidence!

any or all of yawl can fulfill this tapestry.