THERE IS A old joke that the key to success in life is sincerity. If you can fake it, they say, then you’ve got it made. For reflection, however, the crucial quality of surviving in the workplace is not sincerity, but flexibility.
When Bartleby started his career in 1980, personal computers were reserved for hobbyists, and to send a letter required that a handwritten draft be sent to the machine pool. Phone calls came via the board. Office life was so dependent on blended paper that staplers, paper clips, and Tipp-Ex were essential. No one had a cell phone, so quick contact was impossible; this correspondent once sat for 45 minutes in a restaurant waiting for a guest who had been shown to another table and was confused by his lack of performance.
Now office workers have to contend with a host of technologies. They need to know how to raise their hand (and turn it off) at Zoom, track changes to a Google document, and perform financial calculations on a spreadsheet. They have to switch between applications and back again several times an hour. They must learn to use (or at least understand) new jargon, even if it seems fateful or annoying.
Of course, the need to adapt to change is not limited to office work. Those engaged in manufacturing have had to cope with new techniques and new machines. Many of them have had to change sectors to find work. Manufacturing employment has fallen from 30.2% of the workforce in 1991 to 22.6% in 2019 across OECD, a club of mostly rich countries. Retailers have struggled with barcodes, automated checkouts, contactless payments and click-and-collect. But office workers have also had to adapt to a hugely significant change: a division of barriers between work and home life. The advent of email and the smartphone means that workers can be contacted at any time of the day or night. If the phone rings at 22, it’s probably not your mother, it’s your boss.
Employees have to adapt to many corporate cultures over the course of their careers. Only a minority of workers ever spend their working lives in a single organization. The median working time for workers aged 25 and over in America is about five years and has changed slightly in recent decades. Public employees stay longer in their jobs than those in the private sector, which lasts about four years. In a 40-year career, this means that the average private employee can work for ten different companies. On top of that, globalization has meant that workers have had to get used to dealing with foreign customers and suppliers, colleagues working across different time zones, and sometimes foreign owners.
Over the years, employees – especially men – have had to adapt to new social norms. What was once known as “magnificent humor” is now rightly considered degrading to female colleagues. Fat lunches were once common, but they are now frayed. Some middle-aged workers have been slow to accept this shift, but employers have steadily become less tolerant of such behavior.
During the pandemic, workers have had to show even more flexibility, keep in touch with their colleagues and maintain their productivity while juggling childcare and the need to avoid infection. Not everyone has enjoyed it, but the ability to conquer tyranny in the 9-to-5 routine is a very positive development. Monday mornings no longer look like such a terrible view if they do not involve a stressful commute.
It is in fact a great tribute to modern workers that they have adapted excellently to all these changes. But it gets harder as you get older. Attitudes harden; habits become entrenched. There are many things that Bartleby finds confusing about modern life. Once upon a time it was a sign of madness to speak loudly in the street; now people are happy to reveal intimate details about their personal lives while tipping over on their cell phones. Electric scooters seem to offer all the dangers of cycling (and much greater risk to pedestrians sharing the sidewalk) without any of the health benefits. And most confusing of all is that a man with the character and record of Boris Johnson has become his country’s prime minister.
This confusion is a hint that this columnist is not flexible enough to cover the modern world and needs to retire. The danger is that one becomes a caricature of a sour old man, and like his fictitious namesake, Bartleby would “prefer not to”. Thank you so much for reading the column over the last three years.
This article appeared in the Business section of the print edition under the heading “Become Flexible or Get Started”
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