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The Death of Dilbert: Why Your Children Will Need to Love Their Jobs

While the number of unskilled jobs and professional jobs have both been increasing, even in the face of this recession, the number of skilled, routine jobs -- the bread and butter work of the middle class -- is falling through the floor.
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Given that she's only 19 days old, perhaps it's too soon for me to be thinking about my daughter's career. Yet two recent articles got me thinking about the deep changes our economy is going through, and what these tectonic shifts are going to mean for her generation.

In Time Magazine, Fareed Zakaria pointed out that there are basically three types of jobs in America.

  1. Unskilled service jobs (such as waiter or security guard)
  2. Skilled, routine jobs (such as sales, office management and factory workers)
  3. Managerial, technical and professional jobs (such as executives, entrepreneurs and doctors)

In other words, you can flip burgers, shuffle papers or innovate. And over the last 100 years, our country has been built on the backs of "middle America"; the hard working men and women who worked 9-5 jobs, and did the work they were told to, so they could bring their paychecks home to their families.

The majority of today's middle class jobs involve skilled but routine work; it can be boring and unfulfilling, but at least is safe and predictable.

Perhaps this is why Dilbert is one of our funniest, most popular cartoons. I mean, who can't relate to the idiocies and inefficiencies in his world?

But here's the thing. Dilbert is dying.

While the number of unskilled jobs and professional jobs have both been increasing, even in the face of this recession, the number of skilled, routine jobs -- the bread and butter work of the middle class -- is falling through the floor.

Here's why.

One of the fundamental requirements of business is the incessant drive to "automate or delegate." Successful entrepreneurs and executives are constantly looking for ways to offload the 90% (the urgent but routine tasks that so quickly fill up each day) so they can focus on the 10% (the important, innovative work that makes all the difference in the longer term.)

Up until 10 years ago, the most efficient way to do this was to build a factory or office building, fill it with employees, and create handbooks that spelled out every aspect of their jobs. However, the twin forces of technology and globalization have changed that.

Today, the first choice is to get a computer to do something. The second choice is to hire someone in China or India to do it. Then it's only if those two options fail that it actually makes sense to hire someone in America and pay them a decent, living wage.

This shift isn't something that's going to go away. And it's not something that can be solved by passing new laws, by getting mad at people, or by creating yet another investment bubble.

As Thomas Friedman points out,

Just doing your job in an average way -- in this integrated and automated global economy -- will lead to below-average wages. Sadly, average is over. We're in the age of "extra," and everyone has to figure out what extra they can add to their work to justify being paid more than a computer, a Chinese worker or a day laborer. "People will always need haircuts and health care," says Katz, "and you can do that with low-wage labor or with people who acquire a lot of skills and pride and bring their imagination to do creative and customized things." Their work will be more meaningful and their customers more satisfied.

Innovation, creativity, lifelong learning, passion, entrepreneurship, personal mastery -- these are the qualifications our children are going to need in order to do well in the 21st century.

They're the qualifications we're all going to need. And at the end of the day, these traits come down to one, seemingly un-business-like thing: love. True, lasting success is increasingly going to be measured by our ability to love our work, to love learning, and to love the people we serve.

Do you really care about your work? And will your children? Because if they don't care, they're going to do an average job. And average just won't do.

At one level, our society already gets this, as witnessed by the ever-increasing pressure being placed on kids to do whatever it takes to succeed. (Get better grades! Better scores! Better hobbies! Now!)

But even more important than what we achieve is why we achieve it. When we do things because we "should," because we want others' approval, or just because we want the money, sooner or later things fall apart. (Exhibit A: The financial crisis. Exhibit B: Britney Spears.)

So how can we help our children find and follow their callings, instead of just training for a career? How can we tap in to our own passions, and find ways to do what we love that also pay the bills? How can we evolve our educational systems so they better honor the whole person? And how can we learn how to do business in a new, different, more loving way?

I'd love to hear your thoughts on these important questions.

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