This past Sunday, on Halloween night, the Youngquist household only had 8-10 trick-or-treaters show up, down from perhaps a dozen the year before and a few dozen more the year before that.  Then this past Tuesday, on Election Day, I sent in my ballot by mail instead of marching down (as in past years) to cast my vote at the local polling place.  And yesterday morning, as I was walking my dogs out on a beautiful leaf-strewn mountain trail in Issaquah, I called out a cheerful “good morning” to the one other person I encountered out walking through the woods at that hour — who proceeded to turn his head, hurry by, and not even acknowledge me, in return.

What do these three disparate experiences have to do with each other — or more importantly, with YOUR career future?

Personally, I think they all underscore a phenomenon that’s been happening for the past 10-15 years, right under our noses, and that is starting to have drastic consequences in terms of the job market and the ability of many professionals to earn a living.  I think they demonstrate the rapid demise of the traditional community and social structures we’ve relied on so heavily in the past — and the growing need, as a result, for serious professionals to take responsibility for building their own community around themselves.

I realize, of course, that I’m far from the first person to make these observations.  Back in 2000, a book called Bowling Alone came out that warned about the cratering membership taking place across many traditional community and civic organizations such as churches, neighborhood groups, fraternal organizations, and yes, even bowling leagues.  And then you have leading social commentators like Seth Godin echoing similar themes, such as in his best-selling book Tribes from a few years ago, where he discussed how companies today can no longer count on promoting their products in the normal fashion — and now must embrace social media and other methods to create a loyal following or “tribe” around their brand from the ground up.

So something fundamental has changed in the basic fabric of how companies/candidates market themselves.  That much, I think we can all agree on.  We can feel it.  We can sense it.  And as I witness “trusted relationships” increasingly trumping “qualifications” as the primary factor in people getting hired, my belief is that any professional who doesn’t take the time to marshal an army of supporters around himself/herself is going to be at a major disadvantage in terms of finding employment.  And yet, there are many veterans still operating from the old career paradigm who haven’t quite come to grips with this notion.  These folks routinely express sentiments like:

“I just don’t know all that many people; I pretty much keep my head down, do my work, and keep to myself.”

“I used to know a lot of people, but haven’t kept in touch with them over the years, so now it would be weird or awkward to reconnect with them only because I’m looking for a job.”

“Sure, I know quite a few people on a social basis, but I don’t see how these people could help me find a job.  They don’t work in my industry.”

“I don’t understand why I send all these resumes out and never seem to hear anything back!”

“I think social media and networking sites like Facebook and LinkedIn are for the birds.  I’m just not into that kind of stuff.”

If you’ve caught yourself uttering any of the above sentiments, at times, I hate to say it, but that’s a pretty reliable indicator that you’re clinging to some outdated notions about work, relationships, and career success — and might need to catch up to speed with the way the marketplace  has changed in recent years.  These days, no matter what field a person works in, the primary ingredient to success (as stated earlier) involves the building, managing, and maintenance of a vibrant web of personal supporters.  You need to get known.  You need to be somebody worth knowing.   And ultimately, for best results, you need to assemble an army of folks you can count on to spread the good word about you when you’re looking for a new employment opportunity — just as you’ll do for them, in return, should they become “free agents” at some point in time.

The force that’s going to bind this diverse, powerful universe of people together in a cohesive way?  Guess what, it’s YOU!  You’ll accomplish this step by taking it seriously, making it a priority, thinking reciprocally, and pumping focused effort each week into keeping all of these folks in happy win/win orbit around yourself.  No longer will you be able to count as much on such communities just springing up “organically” via social institutions and other methods we’ve relied upon heavily in previous decades.  By all accounts, these constructs are rapidly losing their steam, at least in bigger cities where people seem to be increasingly mobile, standoffish, and particular about whom they associate with.  The anecdotal evidence supporting this is fairly obvious, I think.  And speaking at least for myself, the folks I know who are having the most success these days, be it of the career or business variety, are those who have fully shouldered responsibility for building a “tribe” of dozens (or hundreds) of allies around themselves.

So I just wanted to plant that thought out there, to kick off the month, since I see so many people suffering from what appears to be a lack of understanding around this issue — and who are still trying to play by the old rules, instead of adapting to the new realities out there.

The good news?  It’s never too late to start building a powerful constellation of supporters around yourself.  In fact, it’s never been easier.  We’ve got social media sites offering revolutionary new ways to find, connect, and build relationships with individuals from all walks of life.  We’ve got thousands of new events, mixers, meetup groups, and online/offline forums popping up to help folks connect with like-minded collaborators.  And despite the tough times we’re going through, economically, the people I meet (whether working or not) seem as eager, enthusiastic, and willing to help those around them as ever — just as long as you express sincere interest in building a reciprocal relationship, not just engaging in a “one night stand” over a cup of coffee at Starbucks, so to speak.

Food for thought, at the very least.  As always, your comments welcome, and perhaps in the weeks to come I’ll share some additional thoughts on the actual mechanics of the personal community-building process.  It’s a big topic, for sure, but one I’d be happy to write more about if there’s sufficient interest!