With a recession looming on the horizon, many workers are worried that their career will be derailed by a financial crisis. I know how they feel.
I left grad school in the wake of the Great Recession with the hope of becoming a professor of Indian literature, but the job market—particularly in academia—was dire. I applied to every single academic job in my field and not a single one came through. It was devastating. After spending years chasing one dream, I had trouble believing I could be happy doing anything else. I wallowed a bit, but then, I picked myself up and began applying for other jobs. During the economic downturn, I took a range of jobs in different industries to gain experience and pay the bills. That circuitous journey led me here, to Fast Company, where I’ve been happily ensconced as a staff writer for six years.
My story is not uncommon. As I was writing The Rocket Years: How Your Twenties Launch the Rest of Your Life, which debuts today, I explored how workers can succeed in the midst of a financial crisis, much like the period we’re entering right now. After digging through troves of economics research, I found that recessions tend to turn workers into job-hoppers, as they are forced to leave positions, go through periods of unemployment, and take on new roles, some which they are overqualified for. But here’s some good news: Even though switching frequently between jobs can feel unpleasant as you’re going through it, it can be a strategy for finding satisfying work in the long term.
The upside of job-hopping
There are some benefits to taking many jobs within a short period of time. It allows you to gather knowledge about a variety of career paths quickly. You can acquire particular skills at a company, such as coding, event planning, or budgeting, even though you know you don’t want to work in that industry long term. One of the great frustrations of being new to the workforce is that you need experience to get experience. Job-hopping helps you beat this vicious cycle.
After grad school, I often wondered whether bouncing among jobs was bad for my career. I worried that I might look flighty and unfocused to future employers. But the fact is that many employers aren’t particularly concerned when an applicant has many jobs on his or her résumé. A survey of 300 human resource managers found that recruiters begin raising an eyebrow only if a job candidate has changed jobs five times in 10 years, which is far above average.
Indeed, even when the economy is good, it is normal for workers to move between jobs frequently. A survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that the average American now approaching retirement age held 11.9 jobs between the ages of 18 and 50 and worked nearly half of those jobs before the age of 25. Workers between the ages of 25 and 34 will spend an average of only three years at a single job.
Among economists, there is some consensus that quitting a job to pursue something that would be a better fit is a very sensible thing to do, particularly in the early stages of your career. Each new job can get you a step closer to a job that suits you better. Economists also point to other benefits: Switching jobs allows you to gain a wide variety of skills, which makes you more attractive to future employers. It helps you expand your professional network, which can help you land your next job.
However, it’s also true that changing jobs too much can create uncertainty and anxiety. These challenges are easier on younger workers, who are less likely to have major family and financial responsibilities. But as you get older, the process can wear you down psychologically. Another interesting insight is that frequent job-hoppers tend to have more negative attitudes toward whatever job or company they are in at the time. Some economists theorize that people who are always looking for new opportunities elsewhere don’t have time to appreciate the positive things about any one job.
When you’re overqualified for a job
There are times in your career when leaving a job and looking for a new one is not a choice, but a necessity. And it might mean taking a job that is not an ideal fit for your talents.
If you’re having trouble finding work in your chosen field you might, for example, have to choose a new industry. And starting fresh often means that you have to start at the bottom and take a job you are overqualified for. Economists call this being underemployed, which is defined as having more formal education, higher-level skills, or work experience than your job requires. Researchers estimate that, depending on the economy, between 10% and 40% of young people in developed countries are underemployed at any given time. That’s a lot of unhappy workers. The data show that underemployed people have very low job satisfaction. No kidding! Showing up for a job that feels beneath you is nobody’s idea of a satisfying life.
Unfortunately, many people will go through some period of underemployment in their career. I saw this play out in the wake of the Great Recession. My friends and I graduated from college or graduate programs in the late 2000s to find that there were just not enough jobs to go around. Some waited out those years by working as Starbucks baristas or sales assistants at Gap, hoping to find another job down the line. I ended up taking an internship at a PR firm at the age of 27, PhD in hand. My fellow interns were college seniors. I won’t sugarcoat it: I was miserable, but since I could not get an academic job, I had little choice but to start at the bottom in another industry. And I mean the very bottom. I spent my days buying lunch for managers five years my junior and cleaning up loathsome spreadsheets.
Social scientists have found that workers are willing to endure this kind of discomfort because it will help them avoid long stretches of unemployment, which can have an even more negative effect on their career. They take low-level jobs to pay the bills and hope that they will be stepping stones to something better. In some cases, they are right. In the United States, for instance, an economist estimated that each year, 20% of workers move from jobs for which they’re overqualified into jobs that are a fair match for their qualifications.
But you need to remain vigilant because it is easy to get stuck in an underemployment rut for much longer than you would like. One meta-analysis about underemployment found that taking a job for which you are overqualified sends a negative message to future employers, perhaps unfairly, that you were not smart or skilled enough to get a higher-level job. The same article found that underemployed workers didn’t have enough time to properly search for a better job. A medical study found that people who remained underemployed for years were more likely to become clinically depressed.
How to get out of a rut
So what should you do if you can’t find a job that fits your qualifications? Economists suggest a two-pronged approach. First, be very selective at the start of your job search. If you can, hold out for a job that takes advantage of your education and skills. Then, if months go by and you still find yourself out of work, take a job you are overqualified for to avoid a prolonged period of unemployment on your résumé. However, it is crucial for you to remain motivated to find a better job throughout this time, even though you might be feeling tired and dejected. This is hard, but it’s worthwhile.
In the midst of a recession, you may feel like you’re stuck in a holding pattern, switching between jobs you don’t love. But you need to have faith that you are still on track to finding a dream job. In my experience, glimmers of hope can appear at the most unexpected moments. That happened to me while I was working at the public relations firm. The internship eventually turned into an entry-level job, but it did not take long for me to realize that I would never enjoy the work. At the same time, to do my job well, I had to network with reporters and learn everything there is to know about the media industry; the job was a kind of crash course on the journalism industry. And that’s when I had my eureka moment: I decided I wanted to be a journalist.
What you can take away from all of this research is that switching jobs and taking work you are overqualified for can be worthwhile, but it should not be an end in itself. It’s a tool. Use these experiences to learn about yourself, acquire new skills, and increase your earning power, but know that over time, the positive effects will begin to lessen.
So as you’re navigating the choppy waters of a recession, don’t lose sight of your larger goal, which is to find work that aligns with your skills, values, and passions. If you can, try to make sure that every job you take during this period brings you a few steps closer to your dream job. And one day, when the worst of the crisis is over, you may open your eyes and discover that you’ve arrived at that destination.
Adapted from The Rocket Years: How Your Twenties Launch the Rest of Your Life by Elizabeth Segran. Used with the permission of Harper. Copyright © 2020 by Elizabeth Segran.