Among the stories of my childhood that horrify my daughters was the neighborhood game I played with some other boys which we called “butts up”. I’ll spare explaining the rules of the game here – and I use the term “rules” loosely – but the outcome was that the loser would wind up bent over with his hands on the garage door, and the rest of the players would line up at the end of the driveway and whip a tennis ball as hard as possible at the stationary target. This game resulted in a lot of laughter, and few red welts.
The game itself was an example of the informal years of childhood, where games were spontaneous, rules made up on the fly, and adult supervision was at a minimum. Whether it was butts up, baseball, hockey (street and ice), or any number of games, the teams and rules of play were changing constantly based upon who was there, who was grounded by their parents, and what the mood of the day was among the participants. If someone was on second base and got called home for dinner in the middle of the game, the rest of us would simply yell “ghost runner on second” and keep on playing. Although there was no rulebook, everyone knew what ghost runners could and could not do.
This world was in stark contrast to our fathers – and it was predominantly our fathers – who spent their days in highly structured jobs where the rules and teams were well established. The workplace was very hierarchical, and organizational charts only had one shape: a pyramid. The rules of the game were that if you worked hard and impressed the right people above you in that pyramid, you might ascend one level, and then another, and over time gain a degree of financial success, after which you would retire and get your pension. You almost always stayed in the same pyramid.
My, how times have changed.
While jobs today certainly have rules, and the concept of hierarchy hasn’t disappeared, the fundamental nature of work has undergone a momentous shift, and jobs are now much more unstructured and more subject to immediate change than ever before. The workplace is less hierarchical and more amorphous, where teams of workers – sometimes from the same company, sometimes not – quickly come together, collaborate on solving problems, disband to tackle other tasks, and reform to accomplish new objectives. To the degree that an organizational chart can capture this, it looks more like a hub and spoke than a pyramid. The greatest opportunities for personal growth and financial success may be adjacent to you, rather than above you.
One of the interesting ironies about all of this is how yesterday’s childhood and today’s adulthood have traded places. Just as jobs have become much more unstructured, childhood has become much more structured. Just at a time when adults find themselves collaborating to form teams and objectives on the fly, their kids are spending their time in organized leagues with pre-set schedules, teams, rules, coaches and positions. In a strange way, we may be hurting our kids’ opportunity to learn valuable skills by denying them unstructured time and the freedom to be bored, which is often the time when unstructured activities spontaneously generate among similarly bored kids.
This is not another lament that children don’t play enough. I am a huge fan of kids today. They’re smart and incredibly capable, and the neighborhood games still happen, just as they did 50 years ago. However, the impact of this structured/unstructured reversal between children and adults is something we should all pay close attention to, because the world our kids will compete in will be an even more fluid world than the one we live in today.
Gone are the days of getting ahead by inviting the boss and his wife to dinner. Gone are the days of moving ahead in the world because you do only what you’re told. Gone are the days when your hierarchical success was largely predetermined by your race and gender.
Today’s work world is more like yesterday’s pick-up game. Roles and teams can change immediately. Disputes need to be adjudicated and resolved on the spot by the participants. Sometimes you need to agree on a metaphorical ghost runner while you seek to backfill a departed team member.
As summer vacations begin for children, here’s hoping they find ways to occasionally escape adult-organized activities and collaborate with their friends and neighbors to shoot a basketball, ride their bikes to the tennis court, drop the puck, or kick a can. Its fun, and they’ll be preparing for their future jobs in the process.
Published June, 2012