Today Uncertainty is the Only Certainty

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I had a few conversations in the span of a week with traditionalists.

My definition of traditionalists: people whose expectations of the future are dictated by what they were led to believe in a world where things seemed more predictable.  Their view of how the world should be perhaps was once true… when conditions had come to be expected. The past dictated the future and it’s this same (and now archaic) view of the future that our parents, our teachers and business leaders continued to nurture. It’s this view that many of us grew up believing would sustain clear into our midlives, when we would reap enormous wealth and prosperity.

One world. One view.

That wasn’t a lie. It was misguided.

This is a life of certainty?

A close friend had been employed by the government for over 20 years. She had 3 kids attending post secondary eduction and a 4th deciding to pursue a Ph.D. Her life today was not what she signed up for. Stuck in the same role for the last 10 years, she saw no opportunities for advancement. Managers who moved on to other opportunities were not replaced. In some cases, the job responsibilities had been divided among existing employees, increasing their accountabilities with no option for salary increases in most cases.

Over the years, fewer and fewer opportunities presented themselves and she became increasingly frustrated as she saw her workload increase. She had become resigned to the fact that advancement, or lateral opportunities in the same office, would be fewer and far between. The older she got the more complacent she became and the less likely she would look for opportunities elsewhere.

Over the last 6 months, she spent many late nights at the office. The culture had changed. This was the rule now. At one time it was the exception.

Was she happy? No.

Did she reach the career status that she was promised years ago? Hardly.

But one thing was certain: She was getting a paycheck every two weeks. She was providing for her family. Despite it all, she would continue down this path because it gave her this level of certainty.

I saw this quote from Dr. Amy Johnson, a psychologist:

Wide open views and unlimited possibilities aren’t all they are cracked up to be.

Most of us, it seems, want to know. We want to know where we’ll live, what our next career will look like, and how it will all go down.

It almost doesn’t matter if what we know is accurate, beneficial, or true.

We aren’t searching for truth or clarity or insight as much as we’re simply searching for something reliable to grab ahold of.

The plight of my government friend reminded me of a scene from Jack Reacher. A defence lawyer was standing beside him and he directed her gaze to the building across the street. He pointed to the two people working late at night in their cubicles,

Look out the window. Tell me what you see… Look at the people. You tell me which ones are free. Free from debt. Anxiety. Stress. Fear. Failure. Indignity. Betrayal. How many wish that they were born knowing what they know now? Ask yourself how many would do things the same way over again…

Today this level of certainty is short-lived. In exchange, it imprisons people who think they need the system to provide for them. It’s what we were led to believe.

During an email exchange with a wise friend and author, Tinu Abayomi-Paul, I stated we will never be stable: in economy, in environment, and in life. Our kids need to adapt to this reality. Tinu responded,

But were we really stable before… or was it a persistent illusion?

The promise of employment for life

I recently read this fascinating book called Beyond Certainty: The Changing Worlds of Organizations. Published in 1998, Charles Handy developed a prophetic view of this much needed evolution in business.

Life-time employment was the aim of every decent employer, and indeed of many less decent ones because it did make life easier to have your own private army to deploy as you pleased… that may be an idea whose time has passed.

Even the Japanese, after all, restrict the privilege to the core staff and make it clear it is only a custom, not a legal right. For they, and others, are beginning to suspect that the disadvantages outweigh the advantages.

These days lifetime employment, as Charles indicates, is bad economics because it limits the organization’s flexibility. It is also bad morally because it “promises things it cannot or will not deliver to more than a few.”

If happiness has been correlated with job stability, and even tenure at one time, today that is no longer the case.

Another friend I spoke to relayed the story of a senior auditor who worked at the same insurance company for 39 years. Already well into his 60’s, he never had to put together a resume or look for a job. He was lucky enough to be one of those “lifers” who was lucky to find employment right out of college. Then one day he was let go. It was a decent package… but not enough to allow him to satisfactorily retire.

He was lost. He felt irrelevant, obsolete. This feeling of “Now what?” consumed him and he scrambled to figure out how to piece the next few months together so he could get to that next opportunity.

In my last post, “The Jobs of the Future are Yet to be Written” I referenced the great decoupling where the rise of digital technologies have boosted productivity and have contributed to a stronger GDP. Yet, for the average worker this impact has been less than stellar. Authors, Eric Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, of Race Against the Machine have this to say:

Digital innovation has also changed how the economic pie is distributed, and here the news is not good for the median worker. As technology races ahead, it can leave many people behind. Workers whose skills have been mastered by computers have less to offer the job market, and see their wages and prospects shrink.

The organization, itself, is not immune to these changes. The decision-makers, mired with a certain mindset, will choose not to see it. As Charles Handy states,

Groupthink can make a cohesive group oblivious to anything they don’t want to hear or see keeping the train running on tracks that lead to nowhere.

Organizational changes are beginning to emerge

The problem with this rampant change is that organizations are only catching up to its possibilities now.

A friend, who advises senior leaders on organizational strategy, spoke to me about the increasing expectation to give employees more flexibility to work from home. Creating a hotel-type system that allows employees to book work space or meeting space if they need to come to the office is now a reality for banks in Canada.

Eventually, he sees a system that will allow organizations to do away with benefits entirely and hire workers on an as-needed basis. Maintaining a black book of the preferred individuals will be par for the course as the organization becomes more agile.

Stripping away the overhead costs to be competitive and gain shareholder value is more prevalent today.

The Gig worker is a reality

One company in Toronto has seen the same vision of the nimble company and has already planned for the day when the flattened organization will rely on outsourced resources : JobBliss premise is this: JobBliss is a platform dedicated to building a flexible workforce for the future.

Angie Kramer, Founder and CEO of JobBliss, is pragmatic in her belief about work today:

There is no job security… Benefit-free contract working for multiple employers is the new normal.


By 2020, a survey by People Per Hour forecasted the following:

The self-employed segment of the labour market in both the UK and USA is growing at a rate of 3.5% per year – faster than any other sector.

Should this growth continue for the next five years, researchers predict that half of the working population could be self-employed freelancers by 2020.

JobBliss conducted their own survey with these results

Almost 50% of respondents were looking for new job opportunities for the following reasons:

  • 37% – uncertainty about job security
  • 37.26% –  lack of career advancing work
  • 29.48% – organizational culture
  • 25.24% – conflict with the organization

While the market makes no promise of opportunities, individuals are beginning to create their own opportunities and terms for work. Companies, operating without the promise of career advancement or job security, will find themselves competing for highly valued individuals.

For the first time in history, control will shift to the individuals.

As per the Future of Work Survey, here are the demands of the freelance economy:


We (as individuals) have more control than we know

While the world of work is changing rapidly, there are enough opportunities to displace the fear of becoming obsolete. Everyone is in the same boat — some are in much better positions than others but nonetheless, the new way of working requires that we shift our own mindsets to give us the control that we’ve always had but didn’t know.

I am my own case study. I decided to be an entrepreneur late in life because what I had learned over time was beginning to take its own shape. I knew that if I was going to nurture this new way of thinking and have control about shaping this model, I could not waste time in organizations who didn’t “get it”. It was now or never.

The last few years introduced me to people who were thinking the same way. We collaborated. We shared stories of failure and hope. We hypothesized about the changes and their impacts. We learned from each other. We pivoted and we grew.

And yet we’re still here. Independent. Still living in uncertainty. Still trying to influence new concepts and new ways of thinking.

What separates the wheat from the chaff

This is the one fundamental that will separate the more successful freelancers from the rest of the pack in this agile economy: Perpetual Learning.

These days, education comes from everywhere, in blogs, forum discussions, and ad-hoc online and offline discussions. It also reveals itself in more affordable MOOCs like Coursera or Udemy.

The current education system is not equipped to prepare graduates for what are about to face. Continuous change doesn’t allow educators to teach the latest market practices, let alone, learn them. Students are now looking to people who have learned their lessons by living them.

Nothing is predictable. Process will be reinvented at a faster pace. Those in a position to impact new design thinking will require divergent thinking but most importantly, empathy to discover and respond to human needs.

Creativity cannot be automated. This is precisely where the next order of job opportunities will flourish.

Where life offers no guarantees, we can now direct our own paths

As I write this, I agree with Tinu: Certainty and stability are illusions. As much as we carved out our futures, there were never any guarantees that these well-laid plans would eventually materialize. Even as we delve into increasing uncertainty, we still want a degree of certainty. Dr. Amy Johnson added:

Even as I moved into entrepreneurship, I wanted to know what it would look like in one year and in ten years. Where would my clients come from? What would my days feel like? I wanted to know exactly how everything would fall into place.

Mostly, I wanted a guarantee that it would “work” the way I hoped it would. Faith wasn’t going to cut it. The thrill of anticipation? No, thank you.

The traditionalists have experienced a brand new economy and may be understandably frustrated… however, all is not lost.

By shifting their mindset and purpose to have direct control over their own fate, they will attain what many of us have lost in the “old-economy expectations”: the flexibility, work/life balance, variety,  job and life satisfaction.

Trust me, I know.

The quality of your life is in direct proportion to the amount of uncertainty you can comfortably deal with. ~Tony Robbins

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