As 2013 comes to a close, I’d like to end the year by asking you to reflect on the last 400 years of human development. As you begin to formulate your goals for 2014, I think it relevant to see where we’ve been and how what was will become what is. Below is a brief recap of recent history divided into five blocks of time (adapted from this). The descriptions that accompany each section are short summaries of what employment looked like during that period in history.

1600 to 1700s – Colonization – The majority of the populace is laborers focused on day-to-day survival as a self-employed skilled craftsman. Humans work 80 hours per week, more than 50% worked in self-sustaining agriculture, and live to be 35 years of age.

Late 1700s to Early 1800s – Industrialization – Employment classes expand as factories are built in America, railroads make cross-country transportation viable, the blue collar working class expands and wealthy industrialists help to create a prosperous middle class. People begin to move from rural areas to urban areas, the population grows quickly, and education becomes more important.

Late 1800s to Mid 1900s – Unionization – Employees fight for rights through the creation of unions to negotiate better pay, working conditions, and fewer hours worked in one week (they worked 100 hours per week in 1890). Humans lived to be 50 years of age, communication methods improve, and employment opportunities diversify as corporations create multiple offices.

Mid 1900s to Late 1900s – Professionalization – Legislation passes that produces more opportunities for “fair employment” and business creates formal administrative structures in turn creating a middle class of white collar employees. Employees then utilize education as a way to differentiate and climb the corporate ladder.

Early 2000s to Today – Specialization – The employee – employer contract crumbles as 30 years of economic crisis concentrate power in the hands of the few and kill long-term employment opportunities. Individuals become entrepreneurs again because unemployment hovers near 8%, many college grads are jobless, and over 70% of employees are disengaged in their jobs.

What lessons have we learned? In a multitude of ways, our society has come full circle. In many others, it hasn’t. In the 1600s, we started as entrepreneurs with specialized skills in farming, textiles, food preparation, or construction. Now, the 21st century requires individuals to think and act entrepreneurially, but at increasingly higher skill levels because of technological advances and globalization.

Landing the career of your dreams (corporate or entrepreneurship) is now, more than ever, based on:

  1. “Out-behaving” others by operating with integrity, being honest and trustworthy, and continually under promising and over delivering,
  2. Treating every single human interaction as a pseudo-interview and a chance to generate value (spiritual, relationship, intellectual, financial, etc.) for others,
  3. Living your personal brand in-person and online so that your stakeholders know what your key strengths are and why they should refer you to potential employers and clients,
  4. Developing your emotional competence so that you influence people to act without positional authority; leaders today aren’t command and control, they’re connect and nurture, and
  5. Seeing yourself as a corporation that has a mission, vision and value proposition and a defined plan to continually grow your skills, nurture meaningful relationships, and market yourself humbly.

I am a big proponent of utilizing the past to help predict what’s next. Our society often takes a much shorter-term approach to analyzing previous decisions and their outcomes. By turning the clock back more than a few decades, we can open our minds further and have additional context to not repeat mistakes made throughout history. Through that, we can make more informed decisions that better each of us and society as a whole. As Cavett Robert once said, “Character is the ability to carry out a good resolution long after the excitement of the moment has passed.” I encourage each of you to learn from our ancestors, become highly specialized in your chosen area of expertise, and be excited about 2014…each day of 2014.

Every interaction you have is a chance to exude your personal brand, generate value, and “out-behave” others.

Go forth and be awesome.