Pulling off the ultimate career makeover

June 21, 2011: 5:00 AM ET

Job security has gone the way of the three-martini lunch. You can't become bulletproof, but you can reinvent yourself. How five gutsy professionals turned job setbacks into satisfying, sustainable careers.

By Douglas Alden Warshaw, contributor

FORTUNE -- If you lived in Birmingham, Ala., and wanted to rent a movie on a Friday night back in 2002, the odds were pretty good you'd be paying David Kahn for the privilege. Back then, Kahn, 49, was the effervescent owner of 45 Blockbuster franchises in Alabama and Mississippi; by his estimate, his group of stores made up the seventh-largest video-rental chain in America, and were worth more than $15 million.

Then a little company named Netflix (NFLX) came up with a new and disruptive business model for renting videos, and soon it would harness the technology behind delivering movies over the web. Kahn was about to be Blockbusted. He was in jeopardy of losing his financial security, his self-respect, his professional life. He would have to reinvent himself --  or the world would do it for him.

Feel a chill of recognition while reading this story? Thought so. In this "Age of Disruption," Kahn's story is hardly unique. If you haven't actually been Blockbusted yet, you've doubtless lost sleep over what you'll do if/when it finally happens.

We live and work in a time when technology has made it easier for new companies to be born. That's the good news. The bad news is that increase in productivity has fueled multiple rounds of job cutting. Add to that the lingering wreckage of the financial crisis and the fits-and-starts recovery, and it's clear that job change is the only constant.

Job creation is at its lowest point since 1980, while job destruction continues to rise. A full 12.6% of the workforce lost their jobs in the past recession, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Displaced Worker Survey. That's the highest rate since at least 1981.

What all these data points make crystal clear is that the very nature of jobs in America has changed. Pensions? An ancient relic. Steady progression up the corporate ladder? Yeah, right. We're living in a project-based economy, one moving from full-time employment with benefits to part-time employment with project-based assignments.

See also: The rules of career reinvention

Here's proof: By the end of 2010, the number of people working part-time because they couldn't find full-time work had nearly quadrupled since the 1950s, to 2.38 million people. "It's a spot auction market," says Robert Reich, former secretary of labor under Clinton and the chancellor's professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley. "What you're paid is what you're worth at that particular time." More

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