"I personally don’t like that question," says Facebook’s Hyla Wallis, and probably neither do you. Yet the old standby, "Where do you see yourself in five years?" keeps popping up in job interviews, even though it's less relevant to the way the future workforce will function.
Few people know better than Wallis, a university recruiting manager at the tech giant, that "people are constantly changing"—these days more than ever. "We’re not doing the same jobs for five or 10 or 20 years." In fact, it’s now much more common to change jobs every two or three years.
But pointing that out to a hiring manager probably won’t get you an offer. So Fast Company asked the experts to weigh in on better ways to answer the five-year question. Here’s what they said.
According to career expert and Fast Company columnist J.T. O’Donnell, the key is "to focus on what level of expertise you hope to be at in five years," then prove why that skill set will be worth more than what you can offer now.
"We need to constantly create value for employers," O’Donnell points out. "We do this by becoming specialists in various skills that are in demand. If we choose the right skill sets, then by default, we will be in demand." She suggests comparing your current skill to what’s listed under "qualifications" in the job description as a starting point. "Then ask yourself, ‘How would I upgrade these skills, and what would be the financial impact for [the employer]?'"
Refinery29 recruiter Taylor Smits agrees. "You should highlight both what you will commit to—learning a software, growing a team—and what the company ends up with as a result—a manager who makes data-driven decisions, a more powerful salesforce. After all, who wouldn't want an employee whose focus is improving himself to reach a company objective?"
Framing your answer this way, says O’Donnell, "helps employers see that you understand the business relationship between the two of you. It also proves that you are forecasting the future of your industry or profession, and [can] see where it is going."
Wallis is less sure that job seekers can make such clear forecasts, and doesn't recommend trying to do so. "So much can change in that period of time," she says, especially now, when more frequent job hopping seems to be on the rise. "But where that’s really valuable is when people move, they learn more about what they love to do."
And as she sees it, that self-knowledge can benefit employers, too—because if a candidate sees a real opportunity to learn, they’re more likely to stay and apply their growing expertise.
Recruiting expert and Fast Company contributor Lars Schmidt also thinks it’s often a mistake to try calculating a direct ROI for the employer. "Today's workers are more likely to be on a nonlinear path, so the traditional—and expected—answers may not fit," he says. Instead, "consider shifting the answer to frame it around intangibles, knowledge, and experience you hope to have gained in five years . . . Make it less about job title [or] level, and more about growth and what you've learned."
Wallis agrees. She says candidates should answer, "What are the short-term things that you want to learn, and how do you feel like you can be better? In what ways can you push yourself to get there, and where do you need help?" Job seekers may be coached to project confidence, but "being able to ask for help is really important," Wallis believes. "Sometimes with those five-year plans, you can pigeonhole yourself with your own expectations and the expectations of others."
By asking the five-year question, hiring managers are "just trying to gauge whether you have realistic expectations about where this position could take you," write The Muse cofounders Kathryn Minshew and Alexandra Cavoulacos in their forthcoming book The New Rules of Work. "So good answers could include, ‘In five years I’d love to have advanced to a management role’ or, ‘In five years I envision myself working with a diverse group of international clients.’"
But don’t manufacture a response like this if it isn’t true, they warn. "If you really have no idea, it’s fine to say that you’re not quite sure what the future holds, but that this job will play an important role in helping you shape that five-year plan."
Whatever you do, Minshew and Cavoulacos suggest refraining from "the not-so-classic" response: "In your job!"
BuzzFeed recruiter Dan Geiger admits that he’s "never been a five-year plan person. I think it makes it easy to set yourself up for frustration or disappointment," he says.
Geiger has interviewed people who feel similarly, and had a creative way to explain it. "I've had a few candidates tell me that the job they want in five years doesn't yet exist. I really like that! It shows an awareness of this rapidly changing industry."
"Maybe it's not the most specific answer," he says, "but with how quickly technology and other factors are changing this industry, there's often not much specificity in anything."