THERE IS A old joke that the key to success in life is sincerity. If you can pretend, the saying goes, then you have. On second thought, however, the essential quality for surviving at work is not sincerity, but flexibility.
When Bartleby began his career in 1980, personal computers were the preserve of hobbyists, and sending a letter required submitting a handwritten draft to the typing pool. Telephone calls are made through the switchboard. Office life depended so much on shuffling paper that staplers, paper clips and Tipp-Ex were essential. No one had a cell phone, so quick contact was not possible; this correspondent once sat for 45 minutes in a restaurant waiting for a guest who had been shown to another table and was annoyed that he did not appear.
Now, office workers have to deal with a multitude of technologies. They need to know how to raise their hand (and mute) on Zoom, track changes in a Google document, and perform financial calculations on a spreadsheet. They have to switch between apps, and vice versa, several times per hour. They have to learn to use (or at least understand) new jargon even when it seems silly or irritating.
Of course, the need to adapt to change was not limited to office work. People employed in manufacturing have had to deal with new techniques and new machines. Many of them had to change industry to find work. Employment in the manufacturing sector increased from 30.2% of the labor force in 1991 to 22.6% in 2019 in the whole of OECD, a club of predominantly rich countries. Merchants struggle with barcodes, automated checkouts, contactless payments, and click-and-collect. But office workers have also had to adapt to an extremely important change: breaking down barriers between work and family life. The advent of email and smartphones makes it possible to reach workers at any time of the day or night. If the phone rings at 10 p.m., it’s probably not your mom, it’s your boss.
Employees must adapt to many corporate cultures during their careers. Only a minority of workers spend their working life in a single organization. The median tenure of workers aged 25 and over in America is around five years and has changed little in recent decades. Public sector workers stay in their jobs longer than those in the private sector, which last around four years. In a 40-year career, this implies that the average private sector employee could work for ten different companies. On top of that, globalization has forced workers to get used to dealing with foreign customers and suppliers, colleagues working in different time zones, and sometimes foreign owners.
Over the years, employees, especially men, have had to adapt to new social norms. What used to be called “laddish humor” is now rightly seen as degrading to female colleagues. Drunken lunches were once common, but are now frowned upon. Some middle-aged workers have been slow to come to terms with this change, but employers have become increasingly less tolerant of such behavior.
During the pandemic, workers had to be even more flexible, stay in touch with co-workers and maintain productivity while juggling childcare and the need to avoid infection. Not everyone liked it, but the ability to overcome the tyranny of the 9 to 5 routine is a very positive development. Monday mornings don’t seem such a terrible prospect anymore if they don’t involve a stressful commute.
It is actually a great tribute to modern workers that they have adapted perfectly to all of these changes. But it gets harder as you get older. Attitudes harden; habits take root. There are a lot of things Bartleby finds confusing in modern life. In the past, speaking loudly in the street was a sign of madness; now people are happy to divulge intimate details of their personal lives while bellowing on their cell phones. Electric scooters seem to offer all of the dangers of cycling (and much more 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 the Prime Minister of his country.
This perplexity is a clue that this columnist is insufficiently flexible to cover the modern world and must retire. The danger is that one becomes the caricature of a cranky old man and, like his fictional namesake, Bartleby “would rather not do it”. Many thanks for reading the column over the past three years.
This article appeared in the Business section of the print edition under the headline “Be flexible or go for it”