The Four-Year Career

Lessons from the new world of quicksilver work, where "career planning" is an oxymoron.

Adam Hasler looks like a footloose millennial. He's worked as a model, waited tables, and lived all over the world. But at 28, there's more to his résumé than meets the eye.

He earned a dual degree in history and international relations at American University. After graduating, he and two partners--boosted by a $10,000 stake from his parents and an investment from a local restaurateur--took over the coffeehouse where he had worked since age 19: Modern Times, inside the Politics and Prose bookstore, a beloved Washington, D.C., institution. "I was 22 and naive," he says now. "We got our asses handed to us." Still, working 16-hour days for weeks on end, "living on cookies and beer," Hasler and his partners increased the shop's revenue in three years from less than $200,000 to $500,000.

Then Hasler got restless. He started a personal project, writing his own history of the entire Western arts canon, from music to architecture. He began to conceive of software that might allow him to visualize the connections between artworks, but he lacked tech skills. So at 26, he left the coffeehouse, paid off his investors, and plunged into Washington's media-arts scene. He taught himself programming. He wrote case studies for Innovations, a journal of international development founded by Phil Auerswald, a professor at George Mason University who was also a regular at the coffeehouse. Then it was off to Buenos Aires for a year, where he created an apprenticeship at an interactive media-arts lab called Estado Lateral. "My first job for them was literally folding electrical cords," he says. In his spare time, he traveled the country playing polo.

The particulars of Hasler's young career can appear exotic and, yes, flighty. But his essential experience--tacking swiftly from job to job and field to field, learning new skills all the while--resembles the pattern that increasingly defines our careers. According to recent statistics, the median number of years a U.S. worker has been in his or her current job is just 4.4, down sharply since the 1970s. This decline in average job tenure is bigger than any economic cycle, bigger than any particular industry, bigger than differences in education levels, and bigger than differences in gender. (Since women are more likely to interrupt their careers for child rearing and caregiving, their average time in a job is even shorter than a man's.) Statistically, the shortening of the job cycle has been driven by two factors. The first is a marked decline in the "long job"--that is, the traditional 20-year capstone to a career. Simultaneously, there's been an increase in "churning"-- workers well into their thirties who have been at their current job for less than a year. "For some reason I don't understand, employers seem to value having long-term employees less than they used to," says Henry Farber, an economist at Princeton. Farber has been documenting the decline in job tenure in papers with titles such as "Is the Company Man an Anachronism?" (Answer: yes.)

Shorter job tenure is associated with a new era of insecurity, volatility, and risk. It's part of the same employment picture as the increase in part-time, freelance, and contract work; mass layoffs and buyouts; and "creative destruction" within industries. All these changes put more pressure on the individual--to provide our own health care, bridge gaps in income with savings, manage our own retirement planning, and invest in our own education to keep skills marketable and up to date. Financial commitments like homeownership or starting a family are a much tougher proposition when one, you can't expect to stay in a place for long and two, you can't expect to ever earn more in real terms than you do at age 40, as recent surveys at Payscale.com suggest.

Hasler, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is closing in
Hasler, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is closing in "concentrically" on a career mission. | Photo by Guido Vitti

And yet, many members of the American workforce, Hasler included, aren't pining for a return to the era of the long job. Today, Hasler is waiting tables at a high-end restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where his longtime girlfriend is finishing a PhD in psychology. He has applied to the MIT Media Lab's Center for Civic Media. He imagines combining his experience in international development, electronics, and programming to put the tools of big data in the hands of citizens. One example: a $50 sensor that would provide environmental activists in Argentina who do not have access to government statistics with independent, unbiased data on the pollution of the Uruguay River. He admits his résumé--or résumés, since there are two versions on his website--looks "unfocused," covering food service, art, technology, design, and development. But as he sees it, he's been closing in "concentrically" on a single mission and theme. That is, to seek out "what's most useful and innovative" as he navigates a career full of variation, quick turns, and deeper meaning. Marina Gorbis at the Institute for the Future would say that Hasler is practicing a smart strategy for the new world of work. The institute, a Silicon Valley-based think tank, has been researching future work skills for a decade. Gorbis says, "It's much harder than it used to be to predict what jobs are going to be around in 10 years." Projections from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics can offer a false confidence. "They can say that health care is a growing sector, but exactly what the jobs are going to be, you don't know." In looking ahead to 2020, Gorbis's institute identified big drivers of change such as extended longevity, robotics, and the rise of global connectivity. Then it extrapolated a list of core skills that will be needed in tomorrow's workplace regardless of industry or position.

Hasler has several of these skills in spades. His interests are transdisciplinary--he's what might be called a "T-shaped person," with both depth in one subject and breadth in others. He demonstrates cross-cultural competency (speaking fluent Spanish, living abroad) and computational thinking (learning programming and applying data to real-world problems). The intellectual voracity that drove him to write 50,000 words on Western cultural history while running a coffee shop is a sign of sense making (drawing deeper meaning from facts) and excellent cognitive load management (continuous learning and managing attention challenges). Above all, Hasler's desire to synthesize his knowledge and apply it to helping people, and his ability to collaborate with those who have different skills, shows a high degree of social intelligence. In the future, says Gorbis, "everything that can be routinized, codified, and dissected will eventually be done by machines. Social and emotional intelligence is what humans are uniquely good at--at least for the next decade or two."

In other words, being more fully human is what individuals will need to stay one step ahead of computers--and one step ahead of the crowd.

Even as individuals like Hasler are adapting to new career paradigms, so are large companies--but on a scale of tens of thousands of employees. They have to hire people for jobs that don't exist yet, spot the dynamic shifters while screening out the dilettantes, and clear paths for high performers so they can find enough variation within the corporate confines.

At Google, Stacy Brown-Philpot's current title is senior director of owned and operated properties, which involves improving the user experience for various Google products. But given her history, that will likely change by the end of the year. "My philosophy on career management is all around making changes," she says. "I'm a continual learner, and I've ended up changing jobs every two or three years."

After earning an undergraduate degree in economics at Wharton, Brown-Philpot, 36, landed a position at PricewaterhouseCoopers (now known as PwC). Two years was enough for her to realize that even a senior partner position at a big-five accounting firm wouldn't be "interesting." In 1999, she left for Goldman Sachs, where she worked on some technology deals just around the height of the dotcom bubble. "I got really interested in Silicon Valley and these young people starting awesome companies," she recalls. So she headed out to Stanford for her MBA and made an effort to position herself as someone whose business and accounting skills would be useful to the tech industry. "I spent my two years in business school," she says, "working with startups for free to build my network." Her tactic--repackaging her existing skills, even as she built new ones--is essential for successful four-year-career shifters. It's also easier than it may seem. "So many skill sets are transferable," says Nicole Williams, LinkedIn's connection director. Williams notes that LinkedIn now has a "Skills" feature, so job seekers can search which skills are trending on others' profiles and thus get a better sense of what employers may be looking for.

Brown-Philpot landed in a sales finance position at Google in 2003. Luckily, she says, her new employer (where my husband, full disclosure, also works) has grown so fast since then that she's been allowed to keep making changes without having to leave. After a couple of years of getting acclimated to the search business, she moved on to direct sales and operations for more than 40 consumer products; then she did a stint as director of online sales in India (for that all-important cross-cultural competency). This set her up for her current position. Yet even as Brown-Philpot rises through the management ranks, her spreadsheet and data background (computational thinking, again) is a badge of respect at an engineering-driven company. "I do tell younger people to build harder skills in the early part of their career," she says. "Now that I manage hundreds of people, I have much more credibility having done the [technical] work myself."

Many members of the American workforce aren't pining for the return of the long job.

Looking at Brown-Philpot's career from her employer's perspective can be illuminating too. How do human-resource directors discriminate between the aimless or the difficult to work with and job hoppers on a mission? "We're going to look very differently at a résumé where somebody hops from company to company but in a similar job," says Judy Gilbert, a director of "people operations" at Google's YouTube. "That's not such a great story versus someone who's getting promoted or building their scope. We want evidence of somebody who is growing." Intentions matter, in other words, especially when someone seems to be taking a step back or deep into left field. As Gilbert puts it, "I want to hear the plan they had in mind: I liked what I was doing, but I didn't have the depth in design that I needed, so I consciously took this next job with a small design firm."

For the job seeker, then, telling an appealing story about your career's twists and turns is now an essential aspect of self-marketing. But it's also true that recruiters and managers at large companies are seeking out employees who like to move around. These are the very people who can lead companies toward new markets and ideas. "We're seeing more and more jobs that simply didn't exist five years ago but were created as a result of employees driving toward new goals and objectives," says Chris Hoyt, a recruiting strategist at PepsiCo. Even at a corporate monolith like IBM, "career vitality" is a watchword. There, managers regularly encourage employees to broaden their capabilities, says Jim Spohrer, the director of services research at IBM's Almaden Services Center. "We have a thousand job openings all over the world at a given time," he adds. "We don't want you to go down a corridor where you have limited opportunities down the road."

It's one thing for dynamos like Hasler or Brown-Philpot to chart their next career move in a growing industry. It's quite different to execute a turnaround when you're not so young anymore and your chosen field is shrinking like a glacier in August. "Anybody over 40 was prepared to have a lifelong job, and they've been crushed," says Penelope Trunk, author of The Brazen Careerist and founder of the career network by the same name. "The layoffs have been so bad, and they've had to adapt faster than anyone in history and learn how to use the Internet on the job. It's almost unfair." Laurel Touby, who founded Mediabistro as a media-industry networking and education company in 1996, just at the cusp of the digital revolution, has witnessed the panic firsthand. "A lot of people are too rigid and they're never going to survive," says Touby. "Think about magazine editors. They are good at one thing and they love what they do. But some of the older ones are not adapting and they're just falling out."

Carolyn Gatto, now 60, is a print refugee who did adapt successfully. "I've known since the fourth grade that I wanted to go into publishing," she says. "It was a very straight line for me." She joined Woman's Day Special Interest Publications in 1976, and left in 2001 as vice president and editor-in-chief. At its height, her team published 42 unique editions a year, supplements to Woman's Day's regular monthly edition. But she realized her only next move was her boss's job--and her boss wasn't leaving. "Some members of my staff don't believe that I left voluntarily, but I was ready for another type of challenge," Gatto says.

At first she tried consulting on editorial projects but was surprised that her résumé opened few doors. She attributed the brush-off in large part to her age. Trunk, the career consultant, agrees. The lack of respect for experience is a reality that older job seekers have to swallow, she says: "It's such a fundamental shock to have to compete head to head with 25-year-olds." A good strategy, Trunk adds, is for job seekers to cut anything older than 10 years from their résumés, including the date of their college graduations.

Edmonds, in Portland, Oregon. She hopes her current job at a not-for-profit leads to yet another career. | Photo by Patrick Kehoe
Edmonds, in Portland, Oregon. She hopes her current job at a not-for-profit leads to yet another career.| Photo by Patrick Kehoe

Gatto had a friend, Suzanne Rowan Kelleher, who had edited a travel magazine at her old company. "We stayed in touch--exchanging political jokes over email, that kind of thing," she recalls. The two got to talking about the dearth of good travel info for families online.

In 2006, Gatto and Kelleher, now her business partner, launched WeJustGotBack.com, a trip-planning resource. It averages about 100,000 visitors a month, supporting the two of them and a team of freelancers. "I've got ideas for other businesses too," she says.

Gatto's experience holds several lessons. Her serendipitous partnership with Kelleher epitomizes socially intelligent connection in the age of the four-year career. Even those who run professional networks, like Trunk and Touby, recoil at the term networking. "I hate networking," says Touby. "The people who network are desperate, needy. It's the last straw." What should you do instead? Maintain a wide range of relationships with people you actually like. Time was, says Touby, having the boss over for dinner was a networking coup. Today, it may be more helpful to get the receptionist's Twitter handle. "An hour a day spent on your social network is a huge investment in yourself," she says. "It helps if you're in a career where you really like the people."

Another lesson: "I want people my age to understand that there is life after corporate America," Gatto says. "You can do it, but you just have to be realistic with your expectations." Before she left her magazine job, Gatto paid off her house and cars. She jumped through hoops to qualify her small business for a health-insurance plan. She reduced her spending. All of it proved necessary for her career switch. "You may think you're in a safe industry, but there's no way to totally insulate yourself," remarks author Laura Vanderkam, whose next book, All the Money in the World, is a guide to the financial savvy required in a new age of career volatility. Even if you're working in a corner suite, Vanderkam suggests thinking--and saving--like a freelancer. At the same time, she says it doesn't hurt to lay the groundwork for several sources of income. "You need a backup plan," she explains, "so if you're not doing the same thing five years from now, you're not devastated."

As it turns out, not every older worker is frightened by the four-year career. Some people have been living this way for decades, letting their curiosity--or their faster metabolism--guide them. What stands out is their sense of confidence that things can (and will) turn out okay. "What's happening to our society with faster career change is unsettling for some, and for others it's business as usual," says Cheryl Edmonds, 61. "My career has not been a straight line by any stretch."

Edmonds trained in avionics as an Air Force reservist and started in 1977 as a field engineer, first for IBM and later HP. "I would go to large industry conferences and be the only woman in the room with many, many, many men," she says with an easy laugh. Much as she loved the challenges and the salary, she detoured to explore a passion for art. She ran an art-supply store for six years and taught art to children and teachers. By the mid-'90s, Edmonds's daughter was a teenager and her parents had moved in with her.

At that point, she wanted to work with adults again; she also wanted more financial stability. So, in 1995, she returned to HP, using her consumer retail experience to land a job in worldwide marketing. That led to a stint in Europe promoting printing for mobile phones. In 2005, just shy of 55, Edmonds was offered early retirement. "My first reaction was, Oh dang, I'm not ready." Then she came across the "bucket list" she had kept over the years. So Edmonds started an online vintage-greeting-card business, took a position on the board of a biodiesel cooperative, and became the executive director of a startup not-for-profit for the blind. Nothing quite caught fire, but that didn't faze her. "I have a mantra that I've used for years, which is, Let's just try it and see what happens." She received a certification to teach English as a second language and spent 2009 at a Chinese university; the following summer she landed a contract position in China training Peace Corps volunteers. "That was another fabulous, over-the-top experience," she reflects, "but it also had a beginning and an end."

So what next? When she got back to the States, Edmonds spotted an email in her inbox from an organization called Civic Ventures, a think tank dedicated to helping people find "purpose, passion, and a paycheck" in the second half of life. Civic Ventures was founded by Marc Freedman, author of the 2011 book The Big Shift. In Freedman's view, our culture needs to acknowledge a new life stage. He sees the nation's millions of healthy, active 60- to 80-year-olds as a huge untapped resource. Civic Ventures offers Encore Fellowships, an internship program for boomers who want to contribute to their communities; last November, Intel announced it would offer the fellowships to all new retirees. Edmonds is currently working for Metropolitan Family Services in Portland, Oregon, earning a $20,000 stipend, interviewing and hiring volunteers. The position gives her entrée to other not-for-profits and, ideally, to her next opportunity.

In many respects, Edmonds's career is a model for others her age. Yet she shares inspiration with her 27-year-old daughter, a costume designer. "She recently told me that she expects that she may have to change careers several times in her life," Edmonds says. "She doesn't have fear about it." Adam Hasler, too, has little fear as he contemplates his future. On his wrist he wears a gold watch that belonged to his great-great uncle. The back is engraved with the words holland furniture factory. "He worked for the same company for 60 years," Hasler says. "Can you imagine? My grandpa, too--he worked for GM almost his whole life." Even if such a position were offered to him, Hasler wouldn't necessarily be grabbing it. "I'm not saying I'm averse to 9-to-5," he says. "But I'm not going to compromise."

Infographics by Nathan Bilancio]

Related: 5 Resources For The 4 Year Career

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13 Comments

  • steven wartofsky

    "The lack of respect for experience is a reality that older job seekers have to swallow, she says: "It's such a fundamental shock to have to compete head to head with 25-year-olds." A good strategy, Trunk adds, is for job seekers to cut anything older than 10 years from their résumés, including the date of their college graduations...."

    Okay let's translate this into racial terms.  Would anyone accept the same statement if the conclusion to be drawn were to be, "it's a shock to compete head-to-head with white people if you're a minority, so just get some plastic surgery so you'll look whiter....."?

    Do we all just accept age prejudice as something you breezily gloss over, or is it as pernicious as any other kind, and to be noticed, commented on, and eradicated as quickly as possible?

  • denise zimmerle

    Kids do like constancy, but like previous poster said, that comes at home.  Ours are 14 & 16; they already wish we had spent more than 1 year road-schooling in our RV & more than a month in Europe (apartments, trains, friends) last summer.  They see how hopeless our educational system is and that real friends stick with you even if you aren't in school with them.  11thgrader wants to be out of high school, doing something "real".  

    No silver spoons... 2 technical jobs & 2 incomes until 2002, 1 (smaller) income most years since 2006, saving, living within means and luck.  Lucky: Corporate lay-offs had pay-outs & sold 20 years of company stock purchases before the crash.  Saving: paid-off the house in 2000, cash paid for cars.  My 2002 pay-out bought a travel trailer. After hubby's lay-off in 2005, we were able to afford individual health insurance because we didn't have a house payment.   Europe was funded by skipping a car purchase... new engine mounts for my 130Kmile, 2000 Honda van this week!

  • Marvin Biver

    Health: 4 matches. Insurance: 1 match in the article. Having health insurance was mentioned by only one of the players in this article. I was amused by the quote, "to provide our own health care, bridge gaps in income with savings . . ." How will you provide your own health care if ("when" would be more precise) you need surgery--even minor surgery? Or routine screening exams like colonoscopy? One ER visit could make for a huge gap in your savings; one hospitalization could wipe it out. Going without health insurance is playing the odds with your future, and the odds increase as you get older.

    I am about the same age as Ms. Edmonds, and I wondered what she was doing for health insurance, as she is too young for Medicare. Thanks.

  • Jason X

    I'd love to to do all the great things Adam H. did...too bad my parents can't afford to front me 10K or that my public school education didn't include Polo playing classes...

    The children of the plutocrats who've made it impossible for anyone to excel if they weren't born with a silver spoon in their mouths have a lot of nerve holding or being held up as examples for the 99% to follow...

    I'm disappointed Fast Company.

  • Charles Pooley

    As insightful as it is uncomfortable. Especially relevant for all of us at Trackrecord.me who are working to reinvent ways we capture and convey career experience. Great piece!

  • DaveB

    Interesting, but incomplete.  Each of the examples shown here talks about a manager, in the sense that they depend on other people to execute part or all of the actual work.  What about the support staff that make managing possible?  In many cases, those people need decades to develop the expertise needed to provide the support the manager needs.  Who will develop and manufacture Hasler's $50 sensor? Somebody who was clearing tables 6 months ago?  Have our companies forgotten the fact that industry specific experience is necessary for a portion of the workforce?

  • Howard Sholkin

    This is one of the better articles I've read on the evolution of careers for young and old.  I've spent most of my career in high-tech where job security often times doesn't exist (8 companies in 30 years).  Moving around has worked very well for me but it can be difficult when relationships and predictability are important.  I've seen where it's predicted that young pros may have six careers, not jobs in their life times.  A career is very difficult in that it requires doing something you like most of the time, with people you like for the most part, and at a living wage.

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  • Susan Haroutunian

    While these types of careers are necessary in some areas, they don't work well with families. Children crave comfort, ritual, and security.  Those are not easily provided if a family is constantly moving.  Spousal consideration also needs to be addressed.  What seems like a great move for one spouse, could put the other one behind.  I am a 52 yo mother of 3 (still at home) who has gone back to school to try my hand at a new career.  This means that my husband cannot accept positions in another area until I graduate.  What happens if he does accept something or feels it is necessary?  Does he go ahead and then wait for the rest of us to join him? Do we move the kids  a year before they graduate from HS to another school?  

  • Chloe LaPointe

    " Children crave comfort, ritual, and security. "
    Within the home, certainly; but what goes on outside of the home is always turbulent. Moving makes kids a lot more flexible and adaptable to change. So long as their home life remains relatively constant, there shouldn't be any real developmental problems with any child after a move. Just growing pains.
    I grew up with a single mother who moved us to a different town at least once a year, and a different house multiple times. I probably learned more about life and social interactions from moving than I EVER did at any event, social gathering, or class.

    Just my two cents.

  • Gail Gibson

    A fantastic and affirming article for the growing number of portfolio lifestylists across the globe. Becoming a serial master of hard skills to future proof the way you work is what matters right now. The inspiration and innovation of the stars of this article is living proof that this approach to working will become more and more ingrained and the norm in the foreseeable future.