I think I’ve been through enough economic cycles in my life to say that the nature of employment, at least in the financial-tech industry that I’m most familiar with, has changed fundamentally in the last few years.
If you’re a technology worker and your job suddenly seems unusually precarious, that’s because it is: fear of unemployment, especially chronic or long-term unemployment, was virtually non-existent among techies in the not-too-distant past, but that carefree era seems to have gone the way of the COBOL programmer.
The short explanation for this is that tech people are now more subject to “market forces” than ever before, and that the market itself has become far more merciless and competitive.
More specifically, employers’ obsessive drive to cut costs (driven in turn by the growth of shareholder power and a greater-than-ever focus on the bottom line); the delicate state of the economy since the start of the global financial crisis in 2007; and the ready availability of very low-cost labour in Russia and India, or even Scotland and North Carolina, have conspired to burst the bubble of invulnerability that once protected us.
There was a time when job security was a non-issue for techies. A seemingly insatiable demand for good people, and a chronic shortage of technologists with the skills required by companies scurrying to build out their technology infrastructures, meant that we could virtually call the shots. In the 1980s and 1990s the number of consultants in the most demanding financial-tech jobs grew and grew.
Being freelancers, consultants were able to jump between gigs more or less at will, were blissfully removed from the nasty world of corporate politics, and, being paid fixed hourly rates, weren’t subject to the fluctuations of investment banking’s annual “bonuses”.
I was a consultant for years during that period, and I was never out of work unless I chose to be. I took multiple breaks of six months or more, and when I wanted to dive back in there was always something available. On the few occasions when a contract ended unexpectedly, I was able to find another gig pretty much immediately.
But at some point things changed. For me, it was during the recession of 2001 to 2002, a period of greatly reduced profits in banking that also happened to coincide with the dot-com bust. I was laid off from my job at a global investment bank - a full-time position, in this case - and found that landing another one was not so easy.
No one on the planet was qualified for the jobs advertised
In fact I was unemployed for longer than I’ve ever been - more than a year - at a time when I definitely wanted to work. It was then that it became clear to me that the world was suddenly a different place. The general problem was that, because of widespread layoffs and tight budgets, tech people now faced a “buyer’s market”. Employers and hiring managers were firmly in control, possibly for the first time in my 20-year career, and they made the most of the situation.
The requirements lists for open positions - programming languages, middleware, operating systems, networking protocols - became almost laughably long, with managers insisting on skill sets that, it seemed to me, no one person could possibly possess.
But if this meant it would take three times as long as usual for them to find qualified candidates, so be it. They didn’t seem to be in any rush, and with thousands of newly axed technologists flooding the market they were confident that they would be able to find someone who fit the profile eventually.
Coupled with a previously unknown stinginess, the shift in the balance of power also meant that technologists could no longer demand the same compensation as before. In my case, when I would sheepishly tell headhunters what my last salary was, some of them would practically chuckle at the number, or at the very least let me know that I couldn’t possibly expect to get that kind of money now.
(That salary was high by “normal” standards, but nothing earthshaking on Wall St.)
There was an additional catch here: Some potential employers feared that if I accepted a big pay cut, I would bolt the minute the economy improved and I could get more. My reassurances to the contrary generally failed to change their minds, though I did eventually take a job making considerably less than I’d been paid before; this was essentially the same position I’d been sacked from, and for the same company, but I was wise enough to realise that a bird in the hand was worth a lot more than being unemployed for another year or two.
Which brings me to another problem I faced after my layoff: the stigma of being among the unlucky chosen people. Sure, thousands of employees across the financial industry had just been let go, but why was I part of the 10 per cent or so selected?