Anyone who has ever experienced airline travel, especially in the post 9/11 world and traveling in steerage (oops, I mean “economy”) class, intuitively understands that nobody, and I mean nobody, voluntarily chooses a middle seat. It’s simply not done. And part and parcel to this is understanding that the metaphor of occupying the “middle seat” when it comes to employment or marketability for independent, self-employed types in our Brave New World is avoiding finding ourselves in the Middle Seat, because it’s a miserable position to be placed in and ultimately, is not viable for one’s long-term viability, health or sanity.
In order to solve a problem, one first has to understand it, so let’s dive in…
CHARACTERISTICS OF “MIDDLE SEAT GUY”
If we accept the premise that one rarely volunteers to be the “Middle Seat Guy” (or Gal), absent extenuating circumstances, it is reasonable to conclude that a lack of sufficient planning and/or preparation often leads to this unfortunate categorization. And the truth is if you find yourself in the “Middle Seat” in business especially, you’re running a very real risk of being viewed as being expendable or at best, a mere commodity which is easily replaced by management on a whim.
One of the major disruptions to the psyche of many white collar, or “professional” workers if you prefer, has been the realization that regardless of educational or work history pedigree, the system no longer protects those who may think of themselves (consciously or not) as being among the “elite” or most privileged. Much has been written about lately of the phenomenon of BWM’s (Beached White Males), typically displaced men in their 40’s to 60’s that were previously high-earners, some in what is supposed to be the prime earning years of their lives, who have discovered following their voluntary or involuntary termination that the world is no longer beating down a path to their door and the six-figure salaries that many were accustomed to are no longer sacrosanct.
As many corporations race to create, deliberately or not, a neo-feudal system in which the wealth and power is overwhelming concentrated at the very top with various levels of “serfdom” fulfilled by a mix of workers (including a cohort who can salve their wounded egos, if not their wallets, with various permutations of managerial or lower ranking executive titles), those who thought they had played by the rules have been disabused of the notion. Formerly convinced that they had dealt themselves a strong hand, these disillusioned and disenfranchised players have found they were mere patsies who were used and discarded, and pleas for understanding or “another shot at the big time” tend to fall on deaf ears both up and down the hierarchical ladder. After all, those who still have their jobs, especially if their positions are reasonably well paying and prestigious, don’t want to be tainted by association with perceived “failure” or the “fallen,” and those lower down in the pecking order may have little sympathy for people who once fed at the corporate executive trough and disdained or dismissed the very work which these refugees are either too prideful to accept even if offered, or completely unqualified to perform.
PROACTIVE AVOIDANCE OF THE “MIDDLE SEAT GUY” SYNDROME
So if one realizes the dangers in being passive, or even worse, complacent, regarding one’s career and economic future, what mitigating steps can be taken?
Clearly, both on a professional and personal level of self-development, it is vital that we adhere to the following core traits:
- Remain adaptable and avoid stagnation by constantly evolving.
- Do not wait for rewards and recognition, but create opportunities for these to arise.
- Accept that change is inevitable, and that we are best served if we see it coming or do not waste energy fighting a reactionary battle that we cannot win.
- Make ourselves indispensable through a “can do” attitude and willingness to learn new skills.
- Avoid defining ourselves, or letting others define us, through simple sets of labels and preconceptions.
- Understand that market value and “worth” are two different things; sell your value and thereby increase your perceived worth.
- Never compromise our core values and ethical framework, but remain fluid in how we achieve our most compelling life goals, which should drive our sense of a personal mission.
Many of these concepts have recently been encapsulated in the notion of teaching individuals how to forge a “Protean Career,” and for employers, a “Protean Workplace,” which author and career coach Jay Block has been advocating for and spearheading via the Protean Careers Group on LinkedIn. Over the past several weeks, a small group of participants (the author of this blog included) have codified the notion of 12 Protean Principles which are meant to serve as a guide for people who understand the importance of continual improvement and development to avoid becoming stagnant, easily commoditized, or de facto, a “Middle Seat Guy/Gal.”
Further discussion of the 12 Protean Principles and their genesis will be forthcoming in future postings, so look for these soon!
Jonathan S. Ross is the founder and principal of Black Rock Consulting, a boutique management and communications consultancy based in Los Angeles offering strategic planning, project management, marketing and writing services. Feel free to send an email to schedule a confidential discussion of your needs. Initial consultations are FREE OF CHARGE and WITHOUT FURTHER OBLIGATION.