In-Between Waves

Life is but a series of waves: let’s learn to surf them!

Our common fantasy of a linear career has less and less to do with the reality of our increasingly chaotic work lives characterized by ever more ups and downs. Isn’t it time we rethought the way we view time and career? Aren’t our work lives a series of waves we should learn to surf?

The institutions we inherited from the mass economy era — when linear careers were the norm — are still dominant: our education system caters to the young and our pension systems cater to the old. Our expectations are still shaped by this era, its institutions and the culture it produced: we expect to graduate before 25, start a career in a profession, grow and excel at it, climb a ladder — whatever that ladder may be — , reach its summit and retire, to finally reap the hard-earned rewards of a successful work life. Each age matches a given stage. An age/ stage discrepancy — not graduating before 25, not achieving professional recognition at 35, not retiring at 65 — results in shame or frustration.

But today increasingly few individuals have their work lives mapped out for them in a linear way. It seems the linear model is turned upside down. Young people are students forever and never actually get started for good in their careers. Older people never retire, either because they can’t afford to — pension systems aren’t what they used to be — , or because they don’t want to. People start new careers in mid-life either because there is no viable future for them in their old careers or because they’re bored in them. It’s as if no age had its given stage any more.


Work lives are made of waves

In the 1920s, Soviet economist Nikolai Kondratiev was one of the first economists who described the “long waves” — long economic cycles — in our modern world economy. His book, The Major Economic Cycles (1925), was groundbreaking. A decade or so later, another economist, Joseph Schumpeter, suggested naming these long economic cycles “Kondratiev cycles” in his honor.

The period of a wave ranges from 40 to 60 years with alternating intervals between sectoral growth and intervals of relatively slow growth. According to the innovation theory, these waves arise from technological revolutions that create new leading industrial or commercial sectors. Schumpeter studied the relationship between technological innovation and economic cycles. More recently, Carlota Perez perfected the study of S curves — the beginning of a technological era is the irruption, the ascent is the frenzy, the rapid build the synergy and the completion is the maturity.

It seems our individual work lives are increasingly made of similar — albeit shorter — waves: irruption, frenzy, synergy, maturity followed by irruption, frenzy, synergy, maturity etc. Because innovation transforms and disrupts the professions increasingly fast, because corporations have become mortal and no longer support life-long careers, there are now often several different waves in our individual work lives. One could very well apply the concepts of the “long economic cycles” to individual career cycles. There are “long career cycles”.

In The Start-up of You, Ben Casnocha and Reid Hoffman argue convincingly that each individual career will increasingly have to be handled like a personal venture, a start-up that must find its model, sometimes pivot, go through ups and downs, and reinvent itself several times. The notion that there are cycles in our careers is becoming ever more commonplace. Many self-help books offer to teach us to “surf these waves” and make the best of it.


In-between waves lies fertility

It’s not so much the “ups” that we find hard to accept as the “downs” that we struggle to cope with. Waves include periods of ascent, climaxes, periods of descent and depressing nadirs (low points) during which nothing positive seems to be happening. The second phase of a wave — descent and nadir — , seem to imply destruction and depression. On a personal level, those are fairly hard to accept.

But, according to author Charles Handy, these periods are a lot more positive than they seem, because they serve as preparation for the next phase — ascent and climax. He argues that we should jump to the “second curve” of our careers, however challenging that may seem, before the first one turns downward. Handy, now 83, began his own “second curve” before he turned 50, when he became a freelance management “guru”. The Second Curve is his best-selling book.

Luckily, there is life beyond the curve. The secret of constant growth is to start a new Sigmoid Curve before the first one peters out. The right place to start that second curve is at point A, where there is the time, as well as the resources and the energy, to get the new curve through its initial explorations and floundering before the first curve begins to dip downwards.”

In-between waves is when the next phase is actively prepared. In concrete terms, it means that we must learn to understand that ascent and climax won’t last forever and think about the next stage before things turn bad. It means that we must undertake to learn a new craft, look for a new job or start a new venture precisely when things appear to be fine. Launching the next phase before the cycle is finished is what will make it possible to launch a new phase of ascent before we can be badly hurt by the descent and nadir of the previous one.

There’s something truly liberating about letting go of our linear expectations. Accepting that there are several waves in our work lives, that there is no one stage for one age, and that there will be periods of descent, can be a load off any individual’s mind. Because our expectations, our culture and our institutions have survived the destruction of the old linear paradigm, we have to proactively change these expectations, culture and institutions…


Linearity should no longer be at the core of our institutions

There is a growing mismatch between our institutions and the timing of our work lives. Fewer people are covered by the social insurance institutions created for the post-war boom years. Our education systems aren’t meant for continuous learning. Our pension systems are increasingly failing. Unemployment insurance is meant for insiders only. Non-salaried freelance workers are in the process of inventing their own institutions, but by and large they’re still not seen as a new norm by government, public services and society at large. That makes it harder for them to get access to decent housing for example.

Charles Handy extends the idea of the “second curve” from individual careers to society at large, government and institutions, which he believes must be reinvented. The institutions which used to protect us (schools, universities, companies, friendships, marriages and pensions) are all under threat, he writes. The old authorities have lost their credibility and their power.

These new institutions should cater to everyone regardless of age and stage. If we are to prepare for the next curve at different moments of our lives, we are to be helped by the institutions and systems we contribute to, which should take the cyclical aspect of our work lives into account. Examples of these new institutions that could be debated today include:

  • The creation of a universal basic income (currently tested out in Finland);
  • Longer subsidized parental leaves (not necessarily immediately after birth, but throughout childhood) that would ease the pain of the “generation exhausted” whose “climaxes” both in family lives and work lives make them constantly exhausted and unable to prepare for the next curve;
  • Social insurance schemes to cover new risks (like housing);
  • Education systems that target people from all class ages.

Clearly “From the cradle to the grave” can be understood in a non-linear way to include different life cycles!

Institutions also include companies and corporations that still largely function with the old paradigm and aren’t ready to recruit and manage the ever higher number of workers who have already left the linear paradigm. New ways for companies to recruit and manage in the non-linear age will have to be invented. So that the value of multi-career workers can be recognized and made use of…