Oct 152014
workers in a building site

One of the challenges facing people who’ve started their own businesses is re-entering the broader workforce. Many managers are reluctant to hire previously self employed workers; the PayPal experience shows that attitude could be hurting working

At the Dreamforce Conference in San Francisco yesterday three PayPal alumni, part of Silicon Valley’s infamous ‘PayPal Mafia’, discussed why the company was such a successful incubator of talent.

“The company was composed of a bunch of young folks who were very driven,” said founder of LinkedIn and early PayPal employee, Reed Hoffman. “Once they sold the business to eBay they weren’t the type to retire.”

Along with PayPal’s founders being driven, the company also tended to hire people who had run their own businesses but were finding the  going tough in the economy at the time; “Silicon Valley was collapsing under its own weight,” observed PayPal founder and fellow panellist Max Levchin.

“There was a lot of running for safety in the Valley,” Levchin remembers. “We were looking for people who were into risk taking and were excited to take a risk and this would be the last company they worked for because the next one would be their own. As a result we biased the selection towards entrepreneurs.”

Copying that hiring practice today is Stripe where co-founder John Collison told Decoding the New Economy last month that one of the keys to managing a fast growth business is to hire entrepreneurs and former self employed workers.

“They are self starters; they don’t need much supervision,” said Collison in describing how hiring people who’ve run their own businesses makes running a business that has gone from ten to 150 employees in three years.

it’s no coincidence that one of the investors in stripe is Peter Theil who along with Levchin founded PayPal and is probably the best known of the ‘PayPal mafia’.

PayPal and Stripe’s experience show the folly of overlooking workers who’ve run their own businesses; in a world where business is becoming more competitive, having entrepreneurial employees is an asset too good to miss out on.

Apr 272014
workers in a building site

“In the 20th century the planet’s population doubled twice. It will not double even once in the current century,” states The Economist in a lengthy article on how the world’s aging population is going to affect economic growth.

One of the most overlooked aspects of modern day economics is the changing demographics of the developed world, the aging army of baby boomers has been effectively ignored by policy makers and voters alike and now we’re about the see the consequences.

Japan is the case study as the country is well ahead of the pack with an rapidly aging population and the indicators aren’t good.

Amlan Roy, an economist at Credit Suisse, has calculated that the shrinking working-age population dragged down Japan’s GDP growth by an average of just over 0.6 percentage points a year between 2000 and 2013, and that over the next four years that will increase to 1 percentage point a year.

Despite that drag on growth, the Japanese are still living quite well and could be showing that an economy can grow old gracefully and productively.

The key to doing that is to have a well educated, skilled and productive workforce. An efficient health system that ensures older workers stay fit enough to work doesn’t hurt either.

What The Economist illustrates in its story is that some countries are going to perform better than others as their workforces age. Those who’ve neglected their education systems and workforce skill bases are not going to do well.

One can’t help but think the ideologies that gripped the Anglo-Saxon countries in the 1980s that saw skills being discarded, investment neglected and education cut are going to have a high cost on those nations over the next twenty years.

Apr 132014

“You’re not wanted here” is the message from San Francisco residents protesting against tech workers and tycoon moving into the city.

Over the last year the protests against the ‘Google Buses’ that ferry tech company workers from San Francisco to Silicon Valley has steadily ratched up with protests against high profile individuals, people vomiting on the buses and Google Glass wearers getting their devices smashed.

Around the world, from London and Berlin to Auckland and Hong Kong, cities are worrying about the diversity of their cities as the global asset bubble inflates property prices beyond the reach of ordinary citizens.

In many respects San Francisco is probably unique in its relationship to Silicon Valley and its restricted geography, but it’s hard not to think if the current technology stock falls on the US stock markets became a Tech Wreck style bust then the city’s problems might solve themselves.

The challenge for all major cities around the world is to manage the current boom in property prices that threaten to drive out lower paid workers essential to vibrant economies – although ultimately anything that can’t be sustained won’t be sustained and it’s hard to see how housing can run too far ahead of wages before a reversal happens.

In the meantime though we can expect to see many cities struggle with the same issues that face San Francisco.

Mar 022014

Retirement age is vexed problem in the developed world; while life expectancy has increased over the last Century, the age where one becomes eligible for the pension has barely changed.

Harvard University professor Martin Feldstein illustrates this in a post on Project Syndicate, Saving Retirement, where he has a number of suggestions of moving the pension age to ease the pressures on public finances.

Obviously, retirees deserve advance notice before benefits are reduced. That is why it is important for the US – and for many countries around the world – to act now to make the changes needed to stabilize future pension finances.
Those pressures are going to become more real in the decade as the baby boomers join the ranks of the retired, the cry “I’ve paid my taxes, where’s my benefits?” is going to get louder.
Unfortunately for them, the kitty’s going to turn out to be bare – there simply aren’t enough Generation X and Y workers in the developed economies to pay for millions of boomers collecting pensions for the next thirty years.
Governments around the world have ignored this obvious, and predictable, problem for fifty years and now it’s time to address it. Unfortunately few leaders have the courage to tell their electorates the truth of the challenge ahead.
Jan 292014

Yesterday’s passing of folk singer Pete Seeger at age 94 is a chance to think about old age, the Twentieth Century and how we use technology might be restricting us from seeing the opportunities around us.

One of Seeger’s best known hits of the 1960s was Malvina Reynold’s song ‘Little Boxes’ that described middle class conformity in the middle of the Twentieth Century, which had a renaissance in recent years as different contemporary singers did a take of the song for the TV series ‘Weeds’ .

As the ‘Weeds’ opening credits imply, we are probably more conformist today than our grandparents were in the 1960s.

In business, that conformity is born out of modern management practices that insist employees be put into their own ‘little boxes’ – if you don’t tick the right boxes then the HR department can’t put you in the right box.

With big data and social media expanding, increasing computer algorithms are used to decide which box you will fit into. One of the boxes that managers and HR people love ticking is the age box.

Little Boxes’ writer Malvina Reynolds would never have fitted into one of the modern HR practioners’ little boxes as she only entered the folk music community in her late forties.

Despite being a late bloomers, Malvina wrote dozens of folk and protest songs through the 1960s and 70s – The Seekers’ Morningtown Ride was another of hits – before passing away at age 77 in 1977.

Were Malvina Reynolds born 60 years later, she would expect to live to at least Pete Seeger’s age and expect to switch careers several time during her working life.

Modern age expectancy means the modern workplace’s age discrimination and the box ticking of HR managers is unsustainable; there’s too much talent being wasted while individuals, business and governments can’t afford to fund a society where the average person spends the last thirty years of their life in retirement.

With technology there’s no reason why a forty year old air pilot can’t retrain to be an accountant or a sixty year old farmer get the skills to become a nurse, the very tools that are being used to keep workers in boxes are the ones that enable them to break out of those boxes.

Similarly modern technology allows an accountant, farmer or young kid in an obscure developing nation to create a new business or industry that puts the box ticking HR managers in downtown high rises out of work.

Just as today’s box ticking manager might be confronted by a threats they barely know exist, so too is the business that spends all its time looking at data that confirms its owners’ and executives’ prejudices.
Life, and data, doesn’t always neatly fit into little boxes.

Filing box image courtesy of ralev_com through sxc.hu

Dec 222013
Grandfather 2

As part of their series on America’s aging population, Bloomberg looks at the story of 61 year old Lee Manchester who lives in a friend’s basement.

While the Bloomberg story focuses on the contrast between Lee and her father who benefitted from the post World War II economic boom, the real story is Lee’s work history.

Key to her work history is her setting up a business in 1986, that business failed in the late 1980s recession and Lee ponders what might have been had she not made that investment.

Lee sometimes can’t help dreaming about the trips she’d be planning if she’d invested the $150,000 she spent to start a construction company.

This is the downside setting up your own business that those currently peddling the cult of the entrepreneur don’t mention. If the business fails, and many do, then the costs can be high in lost savings and damaged career opportunities. Being an entrepreneur is high risk, hard work.

We may well find though that more people find themselves launching businesses in their older years as the economic realities of the post baby boom era start to be felt by communities.

In many respects though Lee is ahead of the curve, the generation behind her have no expectations of a long and affluent retirement, “the government will abolish the pension about two years before I retire” is the common theme among Gen Xer and Ys.

For GenYs and Xers this attitude is realistic, the demographic sums that worked for Lee’s father are now working against them while the post war economic system that guaranteed Lew Manchester a safe job and company pension ceased to exist in the 1980s.

Had boomers like Lee been thriftier, they would have still been hurt by a shift to 401(k) accounts from pensions in the 1980s. Thirty-seven percent of the elderly in the U.S. collect pensions, which provide some guaranteed income until they die. Fewer than 10 percent of boomers collect pensions, and that number is quickly shrinking.

Lew’s generation were the lucky ones, while the boomers – particularly the early boomers born between 1945 and 55 – believe they are entitled to similar benefits as their parents, their reality is going to be a much harder and precarious existence into old age.

While Lee is paying the price for interrupting her career with a stab at running her own business, in many ways she’s better prepared for a future that is going to require people of all ages to be more entrepreneurial.

In fact, many of those baby boomers forced to become entrepreneurs may well enjoy it, “launching the business was the most fun I ever had and my way to fight a frightening medical diagnosis” says Lee.

As the reality of their financial situation dawns upon them, many of Lee’s contemporaries are going to find themselves launching businesses long after the age they thought they were going to settle into a sedate retirement – lets hope they have fun too.

Sep 292013

Could it be the age group set up for the most disappointment in today’s economy are the baby boomers rather than GenYs?

The Wait But Why? blog has a provocative post on why Generation Y Yuppies are unhappy. It hasn’t gone down well with some prominent Gen Y writers.

Part of the reason the article offended Gen Ys like Adam Weinstein is its focus on the younger generation having an entitlement mentality and feeling ‘special’.

Were I a GenY I’d be pretty irritated at those views, particularly – as Weinstein points out – when younger folk are saddled with much greater debts and far less work security than baby boomers. Interestingly, Weinstein’s rebuttal makes almost the same points the Wait But Why blog from the opposite perspective.

A mismatch of expectations

Despite some of the provocative statements, the Wait But Why post makes a very good point about the expectations of different generations and the mismatch between what different age groups expect and the reality they encounter.

The economic boomers – the group born from 1935 to 1955 – had the good fortune to spend most of their working lives during the post World War II period that saw the Western world experience the greatest economic boom mankind has seen.

During their working lives, all but the lowest paid economic boomers became healthier, better fed and had more access to creature comforts than even royalty had a generation earlier. The average Westerner today is rich beyond the belief of our great grandparents a hundred years ago.

As the Wait But Why blog contends, the result is the boomers are the happiest, most fulfilled generation we’ve ever seen.

In contrast, GenYs are facing a far less fulfilling future in a lower growth economy that is far tougher and a society more focused on ‘user pays’, ‘cost recovery’ and outsourcing labour to the lowest cost provider than the greater good of the community.

Can boomers continue to be lucky?

While this is true of both Boomers and GenY, it’s worth questioning whether the Boomers’ happiness of exceeded expectations will continue.

Today governments are cash strapped, almost pension scheme is underfunded and the demographic time bomb of an aging population has started to be felt across the developed world.

Worse for the baby boomers is their retirement plans require their assets – primarily their homes, investment properties and small businesses – need to be sold at prices beyond what GenX and GenY buyers can afford.

A reversion to the mean in asset prices for economic boomers means a lot of them will be going back to work.

Recently I spoke to one economic boomer who had lost heavily after the global financial crisis. “No worries,” he said. “If need be I’ll get one of my old jobs back, I can still use a set square and drawing board.”

Sadly, he didn’t understand that being good at using a set square and drawing board in a modern engineering office are as useful as making horseshoes or operating an electric telegraph. Those skills, while noble, are no longer necessary.

While GenY will get on with adapting to the realities of their economic situation – they have little choice but to do so – the big challenge will be for their parents to deal with the modern economy.

A new ‘Greatest Generation’?

Perversely it’s likely the GenYs will turn out more like their grandparents who had to deal with a great depression and a massive World War.

While hopefully the GenYs won’t have to deal with either of those, they are faced with a much different economy than the one which nurtured their parents.

So the real ‘happiness deficit’ could turn out among the baby boomers in retirement at the very time in their lives they are least able to deal with it.

Hopefully the GenY workers will be compassionate on their asset rich but cash poor parents and grandparents.