Career path in the third and fourth decades?

Subject: Career path in the third and fourth decades?
From: Geoff Hart <ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca>
To: TECHWR-L <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>, Monica Cellio <cellio -at- pobox -dot- com>
Date: Tue, 22 Nov 2005 10:32:57 -0500

Monica Cellio wondered: <<It's my impression that even the best technical writers will hit a glass ceiling long before they complete a 40- or 45-year career, unless they adjust their careers away from technical writing.>>

Since I enjoy playing devil's advocate, I'd like to challenge your assumptions. First, most people no longer want to work 40 or 45 years. Most people are going to try to get out of the full-time furrow after 30 years if possible. Remember that whole "Freedom 55" advertising campaign? I hope to be semi-retired by then, but I love my work enough that I doubt I'll ever fully retire. (See point three.)

Second, you're assuming we're all wage slaves. I used to be, but I feel much better now. <g> Freelancers with a bit of low-down cunning eventually learn one of two helpful tricks: to raise their hourly rate until the quantity of work drops to desirable levels, or to bid so carefully on a fixed-price basis that your skill lets you accomplish the job far faster than the client expects, thereby vastly inflating your effective hourly rate. Both are semi-facetious statements, of course, but with a large grain of truth to them.

For example, I'm doing well enough now that I'm slowly firing my less desirable clients (the ones that give me work I don't much enjoy) to let me work on some of my own projects, and when I bid on fixed-price projects, my years of productivity data let me estimate quite well how long the job will take. That lets me set the hourly rate I want to earn, multiply that by the number of hours, and give the client a fixed price. This is an art form, of course; it never works as well as I hope. But I do usually at least match my minimum hourly rate, and often do much, much better.

But the biggie is number three: Why would anyone want to keep rising throughout their entire working life? Only hot air, grease, and other unpleasant things keep rising along with the rising water level. If you love what you're doing, and are being fairly compensated, why not simply accept "good enough"? Western culture tends to emphasize "I always need more", but there's much more peace of mind to be had from being satisfied with what you've got. That way lies a very different and more satisfying form of wealth--plus, you avoid the Peter Principle*.

* The well-documented notion that if you define yourself based on your next promotion, you'll inevitably rise to the level at which you demonstrate your incompetence. This explains pointy-haired managers and most governments equally well.

Now, on to your actual question <cynicism>:

<<What changes in direction did you make to stay marketable while using the skills you've acquired? I see a few possibilities. Many people go into management, which works at companies large enough to have sizable doc departments.>>

Management is always an option, and in that case, the sky's the limit. This relies on the modern capitalist notion that those who supervise work should be paid at least 100 times the salary of the people who do the real work and earn the actual profit, and more if they can get away with it long enough for the statute of limitations to expire. As long as that notion prevails in our society, the only way to keep rising in the food chain is to enter the management stream.

Since you raised the notion of glass ceilings, it pays to note that there are a variety of them that can interfere with your career progression even in management. Being female (even today, being part of that visible majority often limits career progress), a member of a visible minority, a member of an invisible minority if you're "outed", or someone who is not politically astute (e.g., failing to learn to play golf), among others. But at least the ceiling is higher.

<<For the sake of completeness I mention technical marketing and sales.>>

Also good places to pad your retirement funds, particularly if you're associated with a really hot product and get paid on commission. Plus, these people tend to be far more politically astute than most other professionals, and thus do a much better job of promoting their value and getting paid accordingly. You can benefit from their clever machinations by riding to richness on their coattails.


One last non-cynical comment that bears mention: In my previous job, I demonstrated my value sufficiently clearly to my bosses that they reclassified me when I topped out. The classification for writers and editors topped out well below the classifications for our researchers, so they moved me into the researcher category to let me continue progressing salarywise. (My replacement benefited greatly from my hard work, though he had a few problems to confront that I left in my wake. I _think_ he came out ahead on the deal. <g>) Not all companies will allow this, but smaller and more flexible ones that really care about their employees often do, and it's worth raising this point.

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Geoff Hart ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca
(try geoffhart -at- mac -dot- com if you don't get a reply)
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career path in the third and fourth decades?: From: Monica Cellio

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