Vault's Careers Blog

Career advice and job search strategies for the modern careerist

7 Career Changes? Depends How You Define ‘Career’

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What is a career anyway? It’s not a question that’s likely to come up in too many college level Philosophy courses (at least not until they’ve solved that one about the tree falling in the woods), but as the Wall Street Journal reports, it’s at the heart of a debate over just how many careers each of us is likely to have before we reach retirement age.

Most of us will be familiar—at least in theory—with the well-worn trope that the average job seeker can expect to have seven careers over the course of a working life. The Journal has assembled an impressive number of experts, however, to refute the likelihood of that claim—it turns out no one even knows where it came from—and who raise the question posed at the outset of this piece in the process.

So what exactly is a career? Is it simply a job? One or more jobs with a similar function or skill set? And how does duration factor in?

The Journal points to BLS statistics that show “Three in four workers age 16 to 19, and half between 20 and 24, have been with their current employers for under a year.” While that’s hardly surprising given the ages of the people involved, it also suggests that young people switch “careers” more often. But as the Journal again points out: “early, frequent switches, which can include jumps by students between summer jobs, aren’t what many people would consider career changes in the same way as a midlife switch after a decade or two in the same job.”

So how do we define a “career change?” Speaking from personal experience, I’d say I’m on my second: having spent several years as a teacher, I’m now in a completely different field, relying on a completely different set of skills. Other metrics might put me at five: I’ve had stints working in a bank, pulling pints in a variety of bars, and even working as a sales assistant at a certain giraffe-festooned toy emporium. But none of those felt like permanent choices: each job was entered into with one thing in mind—making enough money to pay my bills until I figured out what it really was I wanted to do and gained the qualifications to do so. Entering teaching, however, felt like I was taking on a profession because it was something I wanted to do, and could envision myself doing for a long time. Ditto with my current profession.

Perhaps that’s the reality of what constitutes a “career”: that each job ultimately comes down to what an individual chooses to make of it, and the meaning they find within it. Just as I found myself in toy retail as a means to an end, so there are others who have entered professions that most would consider solid career choices—law, teaching, finance—with an eye simply on the paycheck, biding time until they can do whatever it is they’re passionate about. But if that’s going to be how we define it, many of us will be lucky to have even one career.

As ever, I’m keen to hear your take on the subject. How do you define a career? And how many do you consider yourself to have had?

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One Response

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  1. Hey great article, you have a lot of helpful information, thanks for sharing all of it.

    career toolkits

    September 9, 2010 at 11:52 am


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