How to feel steady in a shaky economy

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Now that we have a recession, and maybe not so much a recession but a new way of doing business, people are starting to look at their career goals differently. And while interesting was the big goal when we were flush with cash, security will be the brass ring of the near future.

Because really, there is just so much interesting that a person can take. When the world becomes too unstable, that lack of stability consumes us.

Jeff Tweedy, from the band Wilco, describes the senselessness of living on the financial edge: “Having a solid [fiscal] base allows you to look at darker things and actually think about them. I debate people about this suffering myth, this tortured artists stuff, and they almost never buy it.” Tweedy is a harbinger of the trend to come, where the demographic you would expect to be holding out against stability for its own sake are actually leading the push for more of it. Because too much instability can ruin anyone, at any age.

Here are five new ways to approach your career so you can create stability in an unstable workforce:

Treat your career like an investment portfolio.
Jobs are the new asset. Time magazine points out that a good job pays off way more than good investing. Especially if you're not loaded with cash to invest. The way to make sure you always have a job when you want one is to make sure you are always job hunting. At first blush it might seem revolutionary to job hunt constantly, but it's actually a way to make life more secure: You always feel like you can get a job if you need one, because you're honing your skills for the hunt all the time.

Don't frame career choices around fun versus not-fun jobs.
Barry Schwartz is a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College who focuses on how people make choices. And when it comes to career choices, Schwartz recommends going a safe route, if you can find one. “I believe that security is more important to happiness than wealth,” he says.

In a flush economy, safe jobs look boring. For example event planning looks way more fun than accounting. But you need to reframe the choice, says Schwartz, because “it's a false choice. There's plenty of room for joy in a low-flying life.” The steady industries, like accounting, are actually a smarter choice because we don't need a high-risk job to have a fun life. Fun comes from other things.

Volunteer, to create a safety net.
Volunteerism is increasing as Generation Y enters the workforce in a cash-strapped way. Young people use volunteering as a way to instigate change. But also, volunteering is a way to gain experience that you can apply to your workplace skill set to increase your earning power and make you more widely employable.

Also, since stable careers stem from solid networks, working with organizations like Cool People Care allow you to do good, meet other people doing good, and forge connections that will help you in the for-profit world as well. Collaborating around a good cause makes for stronger connections than the usual, routine networking opportunities.

Take a government job.
You've probably already thought of working for the government. So has everyone else: applications to government-based do-gooder organizations are up dramatically since the recession hit. Applications for Teach for America increased 45% and AmeriCorps is on track to triple its applicants pool this year.

The good news about government jobs is that they're getting better. Obama is mandating that arcane, outdated hiring processes end. and, in a nod to the power of best-places-to-work lists (which are often BS, but let's set aside that thought for a moment) the government has it's own best-places-to-work list, with red-hot departments like the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Surface Transportation Board.

History shows that these jobs will become more and more in demand, according to Jennifer Senior, writing in New York magazine:

“From Obama on down, people are initiating public discussion that reevaluates the purpose of work — as if trying to remind us, after a long bender of risk-taking and creative economics, that there's dignity in secure generative labor. . . During the Great Depression, many men and women valued security over risk, pursuing careers in the civil service, teaching, and police departments. It was a time of very conservative choices about how to make a living.”

So if you're considering a government job, find one now, before you get further behind and the competition gets tougher.

If you must be risky, mitigate.
Start-ups are super risky. And in this economy, even a smaller percentage of workers will be able to stomach the ups and downs of start-up life. But some people are just born to work at start-ups.

Saras Sarasvathy, professor at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, focuses her research on what makes entrepreneurs successful, and she finds that one of the universal traits is that successful entrepreneurs seek to avoid risk, even as they embark on risky ventures.

So if you must have a startup, make your startup life as stable as you can by picking a product offering that gives customers the same thing you want: stability.

A great example of a company like this is Alice. It's an online store for buying essentials like toilet paper and toothpaste (and shampoo, which I actually blogged about at Alice). One cool thing about Alice is that there is a financial planning tool to go along with the purchasing tool. Which plays to a new, fiscally conservative lifestyle, yes? And when we talk about my own start-up, Brazen Careerist, we focus on career stability: People need to manage their identities online in order to create a stable career for themselves.

So I guess there are at least two ways to think about stability in your life: One is to create it, by thinking about your job as an asset, and investing conservatively. The other way to think about stability is to sell it. And if you sell it well enough, you just might accidentally stumble on stability yourself. That's what I'm hoping for.

36 replies
  1. wilma Ham
    wilma Ham says:

    The foundation for choice and sustainability for me is looking for where can I add value instead of looking for stability or interesting work as the only guideline.
    If you choose on the basis of adding value a lot of ground will be covered at the same time.
    When you add value in a job that adds value, you are needed, wanted and probably your job will continue or you will be able to build a portfolio of valuable jobs.
    When you add value you will feel valued, you will enjoy your work and there is a good chance that you will feel good about yourself and if you are lucky people will acknowledge you as well.
    Adding value will also do the world a lot of good. When we only did, bought and said things that added value the world of work could start to look a lot more attractive, continuously without these current fearful boom and bust cycles.

    • csts
      csts says:

      I’m with you. If you make sure you’re adding value, then (a) you’ll be having fun, as making a contribution is what it’s all about, and (b) the organization you work with will value you as the source of the value you add.

  2. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    This post reminded me I was going to sign up for … so I just did it … and I did like your blog post on their site.

    I’m surprised you didn’t include disclosure on your relationship with as disclosed in your post on 3/3/09 titled ‘Get your next mentor by being slightly annoying’ … so I’m doing it here – . I’m glad to see your mention of in this blog post. It’s a good fit here.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Thanks, Mark. I am still navigating the waters of disclosure. Trying to decide what’s the right amount. I think I should have linked to the blog post you linked to. I was thinking that linking to my guest post on would tell people that I’m close to them. But I think I misjudged that.


      • jenniferlynn
        jenniferlynn says:

        I got that you were close to him.

        I love Alice, by the way. I was so glad to get the email awhile back that they’d gone live. Any time I can avoid overpriced NYC drug stores and/or carrying things up to my 5th floor walk-up, I’m happy.

  3. Alex @ Happiness in this World
    Alex @ Happiness in this World says:

    The phrase “do what you love and the money will come” comes to mind after reading this post, but I’ve never believed it. People are often not good at what they love (or at least, not good enough to make money from it). You need far more than passion to make money from anything. You need good business sense, a good plan, skill (or the means to develop it into mastery), and resolve. Tons and tons and tons of resolve.

  4. Joe
    Joe says:

    Boring? Poorly written?

    This is one of Penelope’s most focused career posts in a long time. So glad to see her provide relevant career advice that stays with the current times and goes beyond the advice she gives in her book.

    Thanks so much Penelope!

  5. Karl Staib - Work Happy Now
    Karl Staib - Work Happy Now says:

    Stability is vital to happiness, but we also can’t let fear dictate our choices. A person may want to go into accounting and they can still have fun in that job, but to go into it for stability…that’s a bad reason. I feel that it’s a bad choice. They are taking the easy money now and suffering later.

    I know we have to be cautious with our careers, especially now, but we also must work a job that makes us happy. I feel that we need to find that middle ground of stability and fun.

    I’ve talked to so many government workers who want to get out, but don’t know how. Their skills aren’t seen as useful in the private sector.

    A life of quiet desperation can make any person go insane.

    The people that are happiest have found jobs that fit with their strengths and passions. A person who loves what they do and creates value for others is one that wins in the short and long term.

  6. Dan Owen
    Dan Owen says:

    In many posts and on your radio show, you counseled people to do like twenty-somethings and quit jobs they don’t like as quickly as possible. Please reconcile this with the statement, “There's plenty of room for joy in a low-flying life." (I also still don’t understand how a quitting a job after two weeks doesn’t brand you as a “quitter” in your personal branding philosophy instead of branding you as someone who has something of value to offer an employee.)

    Schwartz makes an extremely important point in his book, when he points out that people overestimate the pleasure that a “good” choice will bring them, while also overestimating the pain that a “bad” choice will bring.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Hm. I don’t actually see how quitting and finding stability are at odds. Most people quit because the job is so unsuited for them that it makes them feel insecure/unstable.

      That said, quitting is a hard thing to do. It takes guts if you don’t have a job lined up. And, of course, with most things that take guts — most of the world is too scared to do it.


  7. Angie
    Angie says:

    I’m with Joe. This was a good snapshot of the current times — and I feel like it’s reflective of reality (at least for me). I’ve been unemployed for the past four months, and I’ve been considering exactly the fields Penelope mentioned.

  8. JS Dixon
    JS Dixon says:

    The article is interesting. There is one source of stability that I didn’t see you list though, and that has to do with the modern survival movement and urban homesteading. The stability in these options comes from what you can grow at home, in providing your own utilities, and in having 3 months to a year supply of food saved up.
    Two examples of communities based on this would be:
    >The Survival Podcast
    Urban Survival

    I’m curious to here what you think of gaining financial stability through changing your home lifestyle rather than strictly focusing on stable careers.

  9. prklypr
    prklypr says:

    Putting aside the fact that the guy who started Alice sits on your board, this post has some very insightful advice. Happiness is no longer about fun, it’s about stability – you hit the nail on the head with that one. Recommending volunteerism as a way to get “on the job” experience on your resume in a tough economy – a win-win scenario. But for someone who talks about transparency and has no problem sharing everything from your salary (and that of your employees) to your dating travails, you should be up front about your relationship with Alice. If you think this guy is smart enough to be your mentor, that’s a recommendation in itself. And if Alice is a success, your connection will help, not hurt.

  10. Joselle
    Joselle says:

    Although this post gives some nice advice, every single point is the same exact advice given on every single career blog and column right now.

    I’m glad people have brought up the Alice connection. Nothing wrong, again, with being paid to do posts. Just disclose it somewhere. This one seemed so blatant.

  11. Brad Gutting
    Brad Gutting says:

    This is well worth paying attention to. A close, long-time friend of mine plays trumpet for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra–sounds like a dream job, right? In many ways it is. But it’s also his 11th job, and his first that paid well AND isn’t set to expire after a year or two. The lesson I learned from him was simple: work’s work. A job’s a job. Take them seriously and don’t rely on them to provide you with meaning, fulfillment, and purpose.

  12. Clare
    Clare says:

    Although this post gives some nice advice, every single point is the same exact advice given on every single career blog and column right now. (Joselle)

    Well, it’s pretty good advice. One of the most common reaction on losing your job is panic. Panic that you’re going to lose your home, your savings, that you’ll never get another job – panic because you’ve lost your stability. In this recession, so many people have had the rug pulled from under their feet, and they tend to react wildly (sending out 1000s of resumes to jobs they may have no hope of getting) in an effort to regain their stability. So I think the advice here is worth retelling.

  13. AG
    AG says:

    Brad is right. Work’s work. Even if you’re doing something you love, you still have to work hard at it to make a living. Brad’s trumpet-playing friend isn’t talented by chance—he spends hours and hours and hours practicing to develop and maintain that talent. The same can be said for any other professional.

    That said, I also have to comment on the whole theme of this post. I find it so absolutely ironic.

    Just months ago, Gen Y was quitting jobs after two weeks because it wasn’t their dream job. Smart-mouthed guest writers were criticizing their parents for working in a rut, all for the sake of a good paycheck. And Penelope advised us to seek personal fulfillment in our career, even if it makes life hard.

    Now the economy’s in a bit of a slump and people can’t jobs. They’re running out of money. Suddenly, career advice takes an abrupt about face. Security is better than fulfillment. Boring is better than risky.

    It just goes to show that life goes around and comes around. There is no absolute right or wrong advice because what works now, may not work in a few years. Or maybe even in a few months, as is the case right now.

    Maybe we shouldn’t be criticizing each other’s generations. Maybe we should spend more time learning and taking inspiration from each other. Baby boomers need to at least consider Gen Y’s methods so we stay open-minded as we age. Gen Y needs to respect the experience of their elders and take note of how they do things. The time will come when the economy or life situations will put Gen Y in the same place and they’ll need to know how to respond.

  14. JB
    JB says:

    This sounds a lot like the “slow and steady wins the race” career advice I’ve heard for years from my blue-collar parents and their friends:
    -get a good and safe job;
    -it’s not what you know, it’s who you know;
    -a government job = the brass ring;
    -don’t outspend your paycheck;
    -a penny saved is a penny earned.

    Maybe what’s old is new again, even in the career advice column?

  15. TK
    TK says:

    I once thought government jobs were stable too… and then I was laid off from one. Government jobs are just as risky as corporate jobs these days.

  16. Jessica
    Jessica says:

    You don’t post for a week and then you give us this crap? I’m getting really over this blog.

  17. Tzipporah
    Tzipporah says:

    “For example event planning looks way more fun than accounting.”

    Wait, did you seriously write this?

    I can’t believe that someone who would be skilled at and enjoy accounting would also be skilled at and enjoy event planning. They require totally different personalities and skills sets.

    Whatever fun vs. safe is, it’s not about looking for a job that conflicts with your basic personality traits. Dear Lord, Penelope. Try again.

  18. says:

    Working in any feild these days can be tough, 2009 top 10 careers included my profession which is a locksmith. The recession hasnt had any affect on me or my lifstyle. In fact im making more money due to all the property forclosures. Doesnt matetr the times, someone is always gunna be locked out!

  19. Yvette
    Yvette says:

    Just to add clarification: think federal government, not state government. While state government jobs have fabulous pensions and flexible schedules (usually, with generous benefits too) most states are in dire straits. The feds are the only ones that can print money however. In a recession, the federal government continues to rack up debt, while state governments have laws that require balanced budgets. In boom times, state jobs are easier to get, but so are jobs in the private sector and they pay more (usually). YMMV.

  20. William Mitchell, CPRW
    William Mitchell, CPRW says:

    Perhaps I am just a gambler at heart, but my personal experience tells me that:

    1) Taking a position purely for the security is a one-way ticket to Crazyville. if you have to go to the same job every day that you hate, you will underperform, and likely lose the job anyway.

    2) if one learns to want less, they can withstand the valleys when income is lower.

    I write resumes for people every day who are eon the verge of going bonkers because their “safe” job is like experiencing water tourture. Additionally, other than the federal government, what exactly is a “safe” job where you are not the boss?

  21. Dale
    Dale says:

    Fear is paralytic! I’m a poster child for that saying. But what exactly does stable look like these days???
    The way to overcome that fear is to be honest with one’s self about why you feel it, and then to mitigate the risk… i.e. write the reasons down and then eliminate them as nearly as possible.

    Now, let’s see if I can follow my own advice.

  22. Joanne
    Joanne says:

    Reading the articles and comments posted admittedly lessens some of the stress in hunting for employment for a little while, but let’s me honest here, at this juncture in the economy (and that we are in the middle of summer), don’t most of us job-hunters feel that employment agencies, head hunters and advice givers are really just acting as “Providers of false hopes” ?
    If there are literally hundreds if not thousands of people looking for the same job and there are only 20-50 of those jobs actually available, what is the reality.
    Sorry to sound negative, but I am experienced, educated and competent and yet the only jobs available offer $10.00 per hour – I need $20,000 just to pay my health insurance, hurricane insurance, car insurance, and real estate taxes.

    • Joanne
      Joanne says:

      In this recession where job applicants outnumber job availability 50 to 1 (if not higher) “properly executed” is only an ambiguous term.

  23. Political T-Shirts
    Political T-Shirts says:

    I think the important thing is to do what you are passionate about. If you follow that rule, you will make money. Do not worry about security. There are hoards of unsuccessful people doing that. Do you think Donald Trump Worries about security? How about Bill Gates? Hell no. They do what they love and the money followed.

  24. former teacher
    former teacher says:

    I just wanted to make a comment about the idea of a safe and secure job, or a “career”. I decided to become a teacher a few years ago, and spent a lot of time gaining experience, going to school, and doing everything I could to aquire a full time teaching position. I was very excited about it, and invested all of my time in it, especially after I was hired. After all that, after only one year of teaching, I was let go (and I was not the only teacher). Budget cuts for education in my state have continued to get worse, and a lot of us on the low end of the totem pole were cut due to lack of funding, so the teachers with more experience could still find a position somewhere. I know I am not the only one, and this is not only occuring in my state.
    I like your idea of constantly looking for a job, and actually I used to do that before I got into teaching. I think the age of a “safe career” may be over.
    Thanks for your posts, they have been encouraging to me while I am in this state of transition looking for another job.

  25. David
    David says:

    “some people are just born to work at start-ups.”

    I read this and thought “yeah, that’s me.” I’ve been involved in 3 start-ups so far with no failures – just slow but steady growth. I think some people just love being a part of that initial growth. I knew a dude who left a 250K a year job for a start up and now makes a few million a year as the COO.

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