In the US and other "first world" countries, you can get away with being a not-so-useful worker for years on end, even earning quite a nice salary doing so. In the real market economy, however, you are only as valuable (and therefore garner as much money as the market will bear) as your services, skills, and products are wanted and needed by customers--those people who have the money to pay you for what you are selling. Notice how this is a problem for US auto makers. Workers (and their unions) feel they are entitled to a certain wage and executives of the companies feel they are entitled to certain bonuses. With a big coffer full of cash, you can get away with this for a while before bankrupting yourself because (duh) people are not buying your product and are therefore not bringing money into your company.
The free market is quite simple. You can either develop a skill, product or service that you become an expert at and enjoy doing then find customers to pay you to provide said item or you can analyze the market and provide the skill, product, or service that is wanted and needed by consumers. The problem with developing a skill/product/service first is that if no one wants to pay you for what you can do, you will not make any money and go broke (how many people need wagon wheel makers no matter how good they are?). In this example, you can become so specialized that you can serve the very, very few people who need wagon wheels (museums, stage shows, re-enactment events, etc) however you need to be very good and well known because these consumers aren't found on every corner.
On the other hand, determining a need then filling it the most logical way to make money no matter what the economy is doing as a whole. This is quite apparent in third world tourist areas. In any of these areas, the customer is obvious--generally from the US, Europe, Japan, et al. They are dressed in expensive, name brand clothes, carry expensive, name brand cameras, and they have money. With a bit of analysis, the customer's needs become obvious too--food (everyone likes to eat), cold bottled water (they will get thirsty and drinking tap water is out of the question), help finding their way around (they may need a guide or interpreter), a unique experience (put your boat/para sail/horse/local famous site to use and show the tourists around), sex (prostitution is an entire entity unto itself), drugs (Americans are one of the world's largest consumer of illegal drugs), etc. Offer these services/skills/products at a reasonable rate, and you are in business. If there are 25 food vendors or 25 prostitutes in your immediate area, however, you will need to either price you services lower than the others or otherwise attract customers with something that the other vendors don't have (more beautiful prostitutes, fresher looking food, a more persistent salesman, etc) in order to make money. Very simple.
Now let's see how these how you can use these ideas to tailor your job skills to a changing market...
- Who wants to buy the skill/service/product you have? Your employer may be your first thought but if they are quickly running out of money, they can't buy what you are selling.
- Who else wants to buy what you are selling? Think outside of the box.
- Can you tweak what you are selling to draw more customers? If you are designing software for the general public that doesn't much differentiate itself from what is currently on the market and which the public is not really buying at this time, consider tailoring your software development to entities that do have the money and the need--government perhaps? The medical industry? The banking industry (Lord knows they have enough of our bail out money)?
- Note that if you can sell something to others that will help them make money, be more attractive/popular to others, or make them feel better about themselves, you will have lots of customers. Think about the diet industry, hair growth products for men, etc.
- Can you take the lemons of your current job situation and make lemonade? If you are a realtor, houses may not be selling and people are being foreclosed on in record numbers but these people still need a place to live so maybe you can turn some of your "for sale" homes into rentals until the market gets better. This is a win-win situation--people get a place to live and homes don't sit empty earning zero money for the owner.
- What do people need now? There are things that people will always need/do no matter the economy. They will still get married, they will still have babies, they still need food, and they still want to be entertained. Instead of having the yuppiest bridal service store, maybe change and focus on classy budget weddings instead. The need for financial advice, fixing things (instead of buying new), and new job skills are also more in demand now because of the economy.
- Are there new skills that you could/should develop? Maybe your days as an automaker are numbered, but you have always enjoyed animals. How about learning how to train guard dogs--a cheaper alternative to home security systems?
- Don't forget to change your lifestyle to match your current situation. Your former job as a hot shot realtor may have included a Mercedes, tailored suits, and expense account lunches, but if your job/income is cut in half, then it only makes sense that you expenses get cut in half as well. Your ego may be dinged but realistically, people spend a lot of time and expense trying to impress others who really don't care about them. Your "friends" may think you are "the man" when you are picking up the bar tab for everyone but when you fall on hard times, are they there to pick up the tab for you? Often not, so why worry about impressing them now?