7 New Rules For Getting Ahead

Winners in the future will live lean, learn constantly, and do what they love.

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Karen DeSha needs a job, but she'd like some answers too. For more than a decade DeSha made a good living selling real estate, then she took a few years off, until her son finished high school. She went back to work in 2007, just as the housing bust was about to decimate her industry. Since then, DeSha, 54, of Bel Air, Md., has sought sales jobs in and out of real estate, with no luck. Her savings are gone, her credit cards are maxed out, and she's on the verge of declaring bankruptcy. But even more frustrating than financial ruin is the sense that she's powerless to improve her own fortunes. "I consider myself to be optimistic and independent, with loads of tenacity," she says. "I know I've got to get myself out of this, I just haven't figured out how yet."

[See how to stay upbeat amid financial ruin.]

With the worst recession in decades finally easing, the question many Americans are asking is, what now? After prior recessions, many of the lost jobs came back quickly and people more or less resumed their former lives. But this time, economists think many of the 8.4 million jobs lost during the recession are gone for good, with a tumultuous period of adjustment ahead. "There's a global paradigm shift going on," said Mohammed El-Arian, CEO of the huge investment firm PIMCO, at a recent conference in Los Angeles. "There's always a recognition lag. People hold onto the old paradigm until the evidence of a new paradigm is overwhelming."

Business leaders like El-Arian are preparing for an economic future that's quite different from the recent past—and ordinary Americans can follow their lead. The future is always murky, of course, but some long-term changes in the economy and the job market are coming into view. Here are seven new rules for getting ahead, along with some of the mental adjustments that Americans need to start making:

Rule 1. You don't deserve a job. It's obvious that jobs remain scarce, and many economists think abnormally high unemployment will last for several years. What's different this time, compared with prior recessions, is that American workers now compete with cheap foreign labor, and new technology lets many companies produce more with a smaller payroll. Employers these days have a rich pool of talent to choose from when they do hire—which means workers need every edge they can get. Anybody expecting good pay for mediocre work will end up deeply disappointed. The winners will be those who hustle, do more than asked, and occasionally swallow their pride. Employers these days have little tolerance for staffers who complain about doing more with less. But they reward workers who solve problems and make the company more productive. Once the recovery picks up, they'll be the ones in line for raises and promotions.

[See what's going right and wrong with the economy.]

Rule 2. You don't know enough. A few decades ago, a college or technical degree and some regular on-the-job training amounted to plenty of education for most professions. Not any more. Technology changes faster than most people can keep up with these days, and workers relying on the same old skills are more likely than ever to be displaced by young Turks with fresher learning. A recent study by consulting firm McKinsey found that the highest-paid workers tend to be those with an unusual blend of skills, such as MBA chemists or lawyers who speak Mandarin Chinese. But you don't need a wall full of advanced degrees to keep up with the times. Many community colleges offer computer classes, social-networking primers, and other short programs that can give workers an edge. Informal learning, from networking and schmoozing, helps too. Even learning something arcane will help you stay mentally limber if your work demands suddenly shift and you need a crash course in something you've never heard of.

Rule 3. Less stuff equals more freedom. Beginning in the mid 1980s, American's went on a 25-year spending binge. Many of those shoppers now wonder why. "When I started seeing all the stuff we had, I felt wasteful," says Deanna Daum, who recently declared bankruptcy along with her husband Kevin, after a mortgage company they ran hit the rocks. Sticking to the essentials now allows the Daums and many others like them to put more into building a new business or a more durable nest egg. Americans remain stretched, with average debt levels that are just a bit lower than the records reached in 2007. But Americans are also borrowing a lot less, reining in extravagant spending, and living simpler. A key lesson from the housing bust is that living on the edge can be disastrous—especially if you're funding your lifestyle with debt. Spending less and saving more will raise the odds that you can survive a crisis—or pounce on an opportunity.

[See 21 things we're learning to live without.]

Rule 4. Prepare for many turns. Many baby boomers will end their careers in the same field they started in. But don't expect that to be the norm in the future. Change happens a lot faster now, and technology routinely creates new fields like e-commerce and wireless communication that were unforeseen just a few years earlier. Changing fields or careers might mean more training or education, but multidisciplinary learning will be a major asset in the future. And the flexibility to move into new fields can often lead to a big career boost, since the best opportunities are often in the fastest-growing fields. To stay flexible, workers should make sure they have plenty of savings to cover transition periods or finance new education. And be careful about getting committed to an expensive home or other huge asset, which could prevent you from moving where the best opportunities are.

Rule 5. Entrepreneurs have an advantage. When a careerist gets laid off or thrown off-course, it can be debilitating. Entrepreneurs, by contrast, overcome obstacles for a living and tend to be a lot more resilient. Economic downturns tend to produce a surge in entrepreneurship, since laid-off workers often have little choice but to strike out on their own. That's tough these days, since banks are stingy with the money it often takes to start a business. On the other hand, new Web tools and the visibility offered by the Internet make it easier than ever to reach potential customers. Besides, you don't need to run a company to be entrepreneurial. Employers increasingly value innovative workers who come up with better or cheaper ways to get the job done. So an entrepreneurial attitude can set you apart even if you work for somebody else.

[See how to rebuild after losing your fortune.]

Rule 6. Don't get addicted to your paycheck. Another outdated baby boomer expectation is the belief that your pay will always go up. Don't count on it. Losing your job is one obvious wrinkle, but workers changing fields to pursue the best opportunities will likely experience periods of reduced or even no pay. It might well be worth it. Futurist Edie Weiner of consulting firm Weiner, Edrich, Brown foresees "inverted, nonlinear lifestyles" in which more people do things they cherish when they're young, instead of waiting for retirement, and a typical career is interrupted by occasional sabbaticals or other setbacks. "You may not earn money on a nice upward curve," she says. "You might earn more some years, less in other years, and go up and down your whole working life." That leads to a recurring theme: Spending less and saving more will provide more flexibility to pursue the path you want.

Rule 7. Loving what you do pays off. Lots of people seek passion in their work, but many end up playing it safe and going with a steady paycheck. That's increasingly risky. Getting ahead in the future will likely mean working harder and longer, which is okay if you love your work and feel like you're building something valuable, but awfully tough if you're just running the clock. People who are passionate about their work also tend to be more innovative and motivated, key attributes in an intensely competitive marketplace. And many people are discovering that money isn't as rewarding as the joy that comes with doing what they love. "Nothing is more fun than being fabulously good at what you do" says business guru Tom Peters, whose latest book, The Little Big Things, came out earlier this year. "There are worse things in the world than not having a large bank account." Besides, being good at what you do often helps make the bank account bigger.

[See how to profit from your passion.]