I’ve got a story for you. Let me know if you’ve heard it before.
There once was a time when employees had a guaranteed job for life. Then markets became competitive and corporations started downsizing and outsourcing. Realizing they were expendable, employees lost their trust in companies. The love was gone. The employer-employee relationship was broken. Everyone was miserable.
Then along came millennials who shunned corporate America and became entrepreneurs. Nobody could find good workers anymore. Then the consultants showed up and taught all the bosses about emotional intelligence and employee engagement. That mended the relationship and everyone lived happily ever after. The end.
I can’t begin to tell you how many best-selling books, popular blogs and high-paid consultants have based their entire existence on that silly tall tale. Granted, there are threads of truth, but they’re way too thin to weave such a fanciful story. It’s far more hype than reality.
Let me separate fact from fiction and shed a little light on what’s really going on between employers and employees in 21st century corporate America. It’s actually been a very long time since corporations became lean, “at will” employment became a thing and people realized that jobs aren’t sacred. So long, in fact, that I’m sure very few of you grew up hearing and even fewer ended up believing the “employment for life” myth. I didn’t, and I’ve been around way longer than I like to admit.
Ok, I’ll put vanity aside and spill my guts. I started as an engineer with Texas Instruments way back in 1980. The corporate muckety-mucks said they were going to groom me to be a bigwig, just like them. The goal sounded good but I wasn’t feeling the trust so I said “thanks but no thanks” and set out to groom myself.
After six years I moved on to work at a series of Silicon Valley startups and mid-sized public companies where I could be a bigger fish in a smaller pond. I had a field day. All told, I think I ended up working for 10 companies over the course of a relatively successful and fulfilling 23-year career in the high-tech industry.
Trust me when I tell you, I’m no revolutionary. Many of my contemporaries bounced around plenty, just as I did.
As for millennials, they’re nowhere near as entrepreneurial as they’ve been made out to be, but that’s another story for another day. Suffice to say that the newest generation to hit the workforce has little interest in the 8-to-5 cubicle lifestyle. They want flexibility, they want to do great work and they want it to mean something.
Again, that’s nothing new. Most tech firms care a lot less about employee schedules than whether teams are working together to make amazing products that customers love. That’s why Google, Facebook, Intuit and Adobe — along with plenty of non-tech firms that adopt a similar approach — are among the best companies to work for.
And I seriously doubt executives at these companies had to measure their emotional quotients or hire Gallup to conduct employee engagement surveys to make the list. Building a culture of meritocracy that genuinely values talent – that hires, trains and empowers the best employees to do their best work – may not be all it takes, but it’s a pretty good start.
The transformation of the American workplace that began when the late great Peter Drucker coined the term “knowledge worker” back in 1957 is still evolving. There are plenty of executives who haven’t gotten the memo. It’s definitely a work in progress with lots more to be done.
But the corporate world has always been about survival of the fittest – not just for employees but for companies, too. If business leaders fail to adapt by creating a work environment that’s conducive for top performers and up-and-comers to stick around, they’re going to have a very tough time staying competitive in a fast-changing world.
On the flipside, it’s time for workers to wake up and realize that they may have far more power than ever. The market for talent is highly competitive. If your education or experience is in demand and your industry is growing, it’s probably a seller’s market, and that spells opportunity.
The message for workers in general and millennials in particular is this: Yes, you’re in charge of your career, but that doesn’t mean you have to go it alone. Of course there’s no job for life, but employers may need you more than you need them, and that means you’re in control.
It’s entirely possible to achieve more, make more, have more flexibility and have a more fulfilling and meaningful career working for someone else than for yourself. In any case, that choice should be yours to make — not someone else’s. Don’t believe everything you read about corporate America.
A version of this first appeared on Fortune.com.
Image credit ITU Pictures via flickr