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Christina Vuleta

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Twenty-Somethings: What You Risk by Switching Jobs Too Often

Posted: 03/19/11 12:59 PM ET

Millennials can't catch a break. They are criticized for not paying their dues (leaving a job that doesn't fulfill them), yet advised to find their "passion" (leaving to find a job that fulfills them). Before the recession it was career "suicide" to stay in a job too long, so flipping jobs was by choice. Now, with the job market yet to fully recover and unemployment for 20-somethings still outpacing that of the general population, it's by default. Today's millennial goes through an average of seven job changes in their 20s, and according to Pew Research, six in 10 have already changed careers at least once. But what happens when you haven't built up any experience that prepares you for the next level?

While interviewing 40-something women across the country about their 40:20 Vision hindsight on career, I ran across a few who learned the hard way that switching careers too fast in your 20s can leave you in the slow lane in your 30s and 40s. Their career roulette may have been for different reasons than the 20-something today, but their hindsight on the downside of too much switching provides valuable foresight on the risks of jumping jobs too often for 20-somethings today:

Risk One: You Miss Out On Your Prime Earning Years

Some of the 40-somethings I've talked to tried on one job after another in search of cool. Career options in the '90s had expanded from the mainstays of education, law and accounting to include media, marketing, the Internet and more. Many college-educated women back then grew up believing that having a career was a given, but now we had to find one that was creative, and anything but the path most followed. We grew up with "What Color is your Parachute?" so we wanted some color! Yesterday's search for cool is today's search for fulfillment. The problem is, as you start one job, it's not cool (fulfilling) anymore. Then you wake up in your 30s being un-promotable at a time when you often need start being responsible for other people.

This 40-year-old woman left her first job as a software tester because it was too "dorky." She went from gaming to photography to restaurants to fashion, only to wish she had stuck with the program:

I was quitting jobs left and right because I thought all my friends had cooler jobs, and I had that idealized 20s perception that I should be treated a certain way. It was ridiculous for me to think that way. Now I think, "Why I didn't stick with it?" I was really good at it. Instead, it set a pattern of switching in motion for me that came to haunt me. In my 30s I was still at entry level when I should have been in my prime earning years. Meanwhile, my friends were managing things, getting promoted and earning more money.


Risk Two: You Miss Out On What's Now

Similarly, this woman reflects on the opportunities lost. When you're young, you're constantly thinking about what's next, often at the expense of missing what's staring you in the face:

I was never satisfied with the job I had because it was always about what's next. I didn't realize the record label I worked at in the 90s was the place to be because all I could think about was how much I wanted to be at another record company doing a Nine Inch Nails video. I was blind to the fact that hip-hop was changing the world and I was part of that. Instead I kept thinking I had to get to this other thing. Then as soon as you get the other thing, you want to move onto the next thing.
--40-something, producer, Los Angeles, Calif.


Risk Three: You Miss Out On Getting The Job You Want

One woman I recently spoke with had just interviewed a 20-something who had 20 jobs on her resume. She'd only been working for 3 years. Giving her the benefit of the doubt, the woman asked the 20-something why she left some of these jobs. Unfortunately, the answers all started with, "I didn't like (fill in the blank)." Suffice it to say, one her better answers was "the schedule." This did nothing to diminish the reputation today's 20-somethings have earned for being fickle, but even less for getting the job at hand.

There's a fine line between exploring what you want to do and following the road to nowhere. It's the difference between fulfilling yourself and filling up your resume with empty jobs where you don't learn anything. The risk is that you end up with no foothold to step up the ladder, or even start your own thing. This 40-something woman who now hires 20-somethings recommends pursuing passion, but only up to a point:

"Get as much experience doing different kinds of jobs until you find that thing you're really passionate about and then pursue that. But try not to do too many things in a period of time because it limits your choices to a degree. Eventually that bouncing will hurt you unless you are someone who's very gifted and learns new skill sets quickly."

It's a tough call. Without fail, 40-something wisdom says to explore, and not narrow down on a career path too quickly. But after a few years, try to do it in a way that builds on a set of skills and passions that can apply to many directions. Some final thoughts from the 40:20 Vision journey:

  1. Don't switch only because of things you don't like.
  2. Do switch if you aren't learning anything.
  3. If you do switch jobs a lot, don't burn bridges. Always be able to take a good recommendation with you when you leave.
  4. Look at other parts of the company to see if there is room to fulfill the need to explore and grow.
  5. Reframe your skill sets to reflect an internal growth path, even if you can't show a "formal" growth path. For example, you were in a band, but you learned money management, event planning and you will never suffer stage fright while giving a presentation.
  6. If you have 20 jobs, don't put them all on your resume -- choose the 5 that you learned something from.
  7. Try not to leave a job before you have another one. Use your job to learn about other opportunities. Talk to everyone, from customers, to clients to co-workers, about what they do and what their path has been.

Of course, today's job market is not the same as it was 20 years ago but it's easy today to get lulled into the thinking that switching today is all good. But before you do, give a little thought to what you've "got" and what you've gotten out of it.

 

Follow Christina Vuleta on Twitter: www.twitter.com/4020Vision