The 4-Year Career

Over at Fast Company, Anya Kamenetz has a fascinating article on “The Career of the Future.” Complete with timelines of several people’s working lives, the piece claims that the median tenure of a worker on the job these days is 4 years. Forget lifetime employment. Now we have 10-11 jobs apiece. How do you navigate that world?

Strategic job hopping is a big part of it, moving in concentric circles to get closer to where you want to be, taking jobs that help you develop new competencies, but always understanding that a gig may not last. We have projects now, not jobs. You maintain your network with people you actually like who will look out for you when circumstances change. You save when times are good to survive when times are bad (or at least that’s my advice; Anya kindly quotes me later on in the piece).

Yes, such a career doesn’t offer much stability. But the stability implied by a job with a large corporation has become a mirage. In ten years of freelancing, I have seen almost all my clients come and go (with the notable exception of USA Today). Publications open and shut, editors move around and I fall in and out of favor. But by having lots of gigs, you create your own stability. It’s more of a portfolio career.

What’s the longest you’ve ever stayed in one job?

photo courtesy flickr user Voka – Kamer van Koophandel Limburg


8 thoughts on “The 4-Year Career

  1. I’ve seen statistics like this, and I think it must include job changes within a company, which are also frequent.

    I think the problem with the new economic model is how poorly it works in non-urban areas for two spouses. Yes, the midwest is emptying out, but the price of housing relative to income in the places where this model is most feasible (NYC, Boston, DC area, Bay area, LA, perhaps some cities in Texas and Florida) has skyrocketed.

    My former employer sought engineering PhD’s. Those require 8-10 years of education. Then my employer laid them off after 2-5 years when projects were cancelled and people had to move to find another job and start at the bottom again. Is it any wonder US citizens don’t bother with PhD’s in science and engineering, statistically?

    1. @Twin Mom- there was an article in the Wall Street Journal this morning about the long-term unemployed, and it mentioned that one of the factors is 2-income families. If one partner has a job and the other loses theirs, that person needs to find one where they are (most of the time — unless an offer comes in for a great amount from somewhere else and/or the second person has an incredibly flexible career). That, along with housing price issues, is a structural factor that is lengthening the duration of unemployment. Of course, with 2-income families it’s less devastating for one party to lose a job, so there are trade offs with all these developments.

  2. The longest I have stayed at one company is five years, and that was at a project based contracting company. I worked on ~8 projects in that time, I think, for three major clients.

    I have been laid off twice and have left a job for greener pastures twice.

    I work in a notoriously unstable industry (biotech), and I think my experiences are fairly typical.

    It definitely impacts how we arrange our finances and how we live our lives. I wrote a post on it awhile ago, before my most recent lay off:

    1. @Cloud- just left a comment at your site about your statement in your post: “For me, this is actually one of the hardest things about being a working mom. I have the time to do my current job well, but not to make sure I am positioned for the next job that I know I’ll eventually need.” This is such an important issue — are we doing the extra stuff? These are the things like going to conferences, writing op-eds, doing stuff in professional associations that has no immediate payoff, but in the long term, does.

      1. going to conferences = 24-hour childcARE = VERY SUPPORtive spouse, grandparent, or nanny.
        writing op eds doing evening and early morning networking = 24-hour childcARE = VERY SUPPORtive spouse, grandparent, or nanny.
        Sitting on the board of a chamber of commerce etc.
        All of th ese things are very very challenging when you are a parent — especially if your spouse or other parent has a big job — I saw a commercial for some kind of sauce the other day and it showed a mom sitting down to dinner with her two kids (it was pretty clear from the ad she wasn’t a single mom but rather a working mom whose own husband wasn’t home from work yet and who had to get dinner on the table in 15 minutes). I think this is what
        Again why do we give out an Earned Income Tax Credit at this time of year … when we could be rewarding the folks who do this every night of the week and earn like between 50,000 and 150,000… even republicans and fiscal conservatives like chris christie are terrified to touch the issue of EITC… they’ll talk about tax cuts, get nailed for tax cuts being progressive and talk about hey we give out the EITC… what we really need is affordable childcare … and meals in the daycares etc. stuff we had during world war II when womens’ work was really valued… how about tax credits for a neighborhood babysitting co op stuff like that?

  3. I appreciate the article, as well as the comments. I think Twin Mom’s comments about married working couple families really resonates. this is one of the reason’s my husband and I went into business together and why entrepreneurship though so difficult for couples with young kids can be so exciting. I also think our tax policy and government could do more to support married people since this is one of the challenges of holding a marriage together in America. The stuff about getting to the next step in your career (in my case growing not just maintaining ) a successful business — in our world successful means profitable. Profitable — and growing– is so very challenging when you have to ge to daycare by 6 and when your weekends are really about a second shift. Iwouldn’t change it for the world b/c this is by far the happiest time of my life BUT our current child care and tax system isn’t female friendly in the sense that it is usually women who take it down a notch.. not necessarily stepping out. Also can I say here that I support a flat tax system or anything that makes life easier for us in this type of an economy. Our current tax structure is nearly impossible for a small business owner, freelancer to navitage without a pricey accountant and playing a fair amount of defense, which would MUCH better be spent growing revenues, profitability and investing in the things that make us as individuals more productive and the society better off. I just can’t believe in modern America how complicatd it is to pay taxes and how we don’t really reward work, especially the work of the working mother.

  4. The longest I was at one job was 5 years. Most were 3-4 years (but only because I moved several times). My husband on the other hand has been with the same company almost 30 years. Highly unusual these days. He worked on the shuttle program until late last year when the program ended- which once again proves that even after that length of time there is no job security. Makes me wonder if this low median tenure rate has affected the work ethic and/or trust levels on both sides or if it’s just accepted that one will work hard, do a good job and then move on.

    1. @DawnV – I always say we have projects now, not jobs. So yes, it is becoming more accepted that people will do a good job and move on. If both parties know that going in, fair is fair. The problem is when organizations still make it seem like jobs are for the long term. As you’ve seen, even really long-term secure ones may not be “forever.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *