The Work Bubble

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I remember back in 1999-2000 when I worked in Human Resources at a consumer packaged goods company. We made shampoo and fake butter. I was totally jealous of my HR peeps who worked for start-up companies across America. Technology was much cooler than shampoo. Crazy ideas in the tech industry were being accepted as possible ways to make money. And everyone seemed rich.

Then the market crashed and my boring job in Human Resources — with benefits and a 401k that didn’t tank too much — seemed pretty awesome.

Lots of people are asking if we’re in a new bubble. Google! LinkedIn! Facebook! Twitter! Your brother-in-law just got funding for his weird algorithm that nobody understands!

If you listen to the pundits, we are all going to own our talent profiles, gamify the workplace (yes, that’s a new word), and communicate with our managers using ‘social tools’ in a more honest and authentic way.

Hm. I dunno dudes. I look around at Human Resources and I see lots of optimistic, far-flung ideas being lauded as THE FUTURE OF WORK. I see money being shifted in weird directions. I see some irrational exuberance in the vendor community. And I’m shaking my head because this all feels so familiar. Work was supposed to change after we allowed Americans to unionize. Then it was supposed to change after WWII — when women entered the workforce (and were kicked back out). Then it was supposed to change after the social/civil rights/environmental/safety legislation movement of the 60s and 70s. And again in the 80s when unions were demonized and Reagan was in charge. And then in the 90s when Clinton and Silicon Valley introduced us to the limitless flexibility of the internet.

And now it’s 2011 and we have the social web. But work — with its complex intermingling of people and money — still sucks. In fact, engagement has never been lower.

So are we in a bubble? I have no idea. I am not a visionary. I’m not wealthy from ‘new media money’. I haven’t participated in a jointly-funded partnership.

Here’s what I know. I am a bit of a pragmatist. I know that social is changing the world — and it’s changing work — but I don’t know how American innovation & social strategies will fare next to anti-competitive global monetary policies & oppressive governments that control goods/services, people, and capital markets.

And I know that we need energy and food — and maybe shampoo, manufactured goods, state governments, and local services — more than we need the internet and social networking.

Whether we’re in a bubble or not seems irrelevant to me. As you consider your boring job and look longingly at [sexy vendors / technology companies / Silicon Valley in general], remember that your boring job pays your mortgage and puts your kids through private school. And it probably provides some kind of emotional satisfaction, too.

The old adage is true. Look before you leap — with your career, your money, or your heart — into some kind of trendy, venture-based opportunity. It’s still work. It will probably still suck. You will probably never make as much money as you think you deserve. And that won’t change in the foreseeable future.

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