“No, I don’t see myself in your seat in 5 years time”

Why the lustre of corporate life has waned and is it a good thing?

Growing up in the 70s, whenever we were asked what we would like to do as an adult, the very obvious response would be to become an engineer or doctor or the more academically challenged ones like me would limit our aspirations to working for a bank or a company. But one would hardly ever hear anyone say they want to be an entrepreneur! In fact, I don’t recall the word from my school days. Perhaps we heard of businessmen- men, always men mind you, who would own some factory or the other. But in today’s parlance, the word is as common as bread! You hear it all the time. If people are not entrepreneurs, they are always dreaming about becoming one. I can guarantee that employed people in large or medium-sized firms have seriously toyed with at least one or two business ideas during their careers. Although all levels, age groups and females, as well as males, indulge in this fantasy, it is the younger employees who believe in shaping their own destinies and are increasingly being lured to create something for themselves. Why has this shift taken place and how do we deal with this?

On the surface, this seems to be an economic issue when industry is not creating enough jobs and those which exist are unable to cater to employees’ financial needs. If you join an organisation after graduation from college, within a few years you should be able to afford an independent living. That is how it used to be. However, it is unlikely today with the cost of living the way it is. Even working for the best companies, you would find it difficult to live on rent and support a small family. In addition, the real estate cost escalation in the last decade or so has practically eliminated prospects of home ownership even for middle management. But in my view, this is not the whole story. There are changes in our culture which are causing this shift away from jobs. These are important to understand.

It all starts with the individual. There are people who are happy to work for others and there are people who dislike the thought of being confined. While this has always been true, there has never been more information and exposure than now. Information brings possibilities and helps create dreams. People follow success stories. When I was growing up, role models would be limited to a few individuals- parents or their friends, perhaps a politician or a sportsman. There were hardly any well-known businesspeople who we could look up to. That is not true today with Gates, Ma, Jobs, Bezos, all commonly known and constantly referred to. In addition, the plethora of self-help literature is constantly showing the way to become the next Gates! Perhaps unrealistically so, but you cannot stop people from aspiring.

Our families have become more accepting about the calling for entrepreneurship which our children receive now and then. Our own parents were mostly migrants who had lost plenty in the process of partition and were always conscious of the financial struggles of the family. Perhaps, as parents, we wish to make up for what we could not dream of. It is a different mindset today when many children of even middle-class backgrounds have the security of their homes to cushion them against failure. Pushing our children into jobs which do not mean much to them is a difficult sell nowadays.

The gig economy in which people work part-time from home is now an acceptable way to live. In the least, it provides income support for those not yet ready to switch to full-time entrepreneurship. Technology provides many opportunities to work from home or with limited capital. There are more options today for low-cost startups which did not exist in the past. Home delivery foods, ride-hailing cabs, coding, graphic design, blogging, photography, physical training and many more income generating activities are possible which were unimaginable in the past.

What about inside organisations? Employees these days are looking for flatter structures, access to top management and having a voice in strategic as well as operational decisions. They want to remain free and largely self-governed while pursuing these goals. Although they put up with it, they do not care much for the 9 to 5 routines especially when information and mobile technology enables management to call upon them any time in the day or night. The more talented ones are concerned about much more than their paycheques. They seek answers to many questions such as; Does the organisation treat people fairly? Is it transparent? How are people rewarded? Is there is a fair process for valuing work and capability? Are there role models to be emulated? If so, what sort of role modelling? Does the organisation practice what it preaches? Do senior managers and owners have personal credibility? From my experience, it is the lack of positive response to many such questions which make people look at alternatives to full-time employment.

For all these reasons and probably more, the lustre of corporate life has waned considerably. In one of the organisations where I worked, there used to be something called a “long service award”. This would be given to employees who complete a number of years in the organisation-starting with, if I remember correctly, 10 years and moving to 15, 20 and then 25 years. The award would be a token gift whose value would escalate every time you hit a milestone. If I am not mistaken they still continue with this practice! I am not sure how young employees feel about this award today. Even pension schemes which are supposed to reward you at the end of your work life have gone out of fashion and would not be a great incentive for those starting their careers.

Entrepreneurship is wonderful, exciting and rewarding. Perhaps my generation missed out on this and never visualised what could be built from scratch. But now, we need to accept the potential good that can come out of new ventures, no matter how small they are. As Warren Buffet is known to say “Someone’s sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago”.

The desire of working for yourself is not just associated with the material rewards of making it big. It has a lot to do with addressing the missing elements in your life. Working for yourself, your motivation is at its peak, you have faith in your own capabilities and can easily trust the small number of people around you. In the words of Rumi, “come, seek, for search is the foundation of fortune; every success depends upon focusing the heart”.  

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