"Seven Career Changes" A Myth

by: Joanne Meehl

Over the years, my colleagues and I have heard "people change careers seven times over their lifetimes", and looked at each other quizzically. Really - SEVEN times?! I've never known anyone who's done this, save for the very rare career experimenter who can afford to start over and over again at a beginner's salary -- usually at the cost of his or her (I've seen both) relationships.

Sure, I've known people who've changed once or maybe even twice. But even those who come to me to determine if they should change careers almost always decide to do a career shift rather than a career change: someone in pharmaceutical sales, for example, shifts to medical device sales. Or a hospital CTO becomes the CIO of a large medical practice.

A career change: A college career counselor (yours truly) becomes a sales rep for a computer division of Xerox -- a real change yet the similarities in needs assessment and then applying solutions were so close that they landed me the job and got me started in 10+ years in sales.

A career change means that not only does the work itself change, but the customer/client changes, the organizational culture changes, and so forth. A career shift is as explained above: you step sideways but you're still in a very similar culture and dealing with very similar customers. And a job is one piece of the flow we call a career. The word "career" as a noun means "direction" or "course" (as in direction).

I can say that in the 20 or so years I've been doing this work, after working with literally thousands of people while in outplacement, at career centers for dislocated workers, and at colleges with older students, that I have seen perhaps 1-2 people change careers more than 2-3 times. I suspect that using one's life to experiment with careers, rather than working with someone who can help you determine a valid direction, represents a deeper problem, such as Peter Pan Syndrome ("I don't want to grow up..."). But I'll leave that to the psychologists to determine. In short, it just doesn't happen with 99.9% of real people.

So where did this "7 career changes" story get started? No one seems to know. Evidently it's just been repeated so much that people assume it's true. The statistic has been attributed to the US Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Now The Wall Street Journal's Carl Bialik (9-11-10) says the BLS does not track the numbers of career changes, but they keep track of the numbers of jobs in a lifetime, not the same statistic at all. So he, a statistics lover, asks the question "Where does this 7-change number come from?", and ends up saying a few different things, including that people who do what I do keep the myth alive so that we can get more customers! (You can't hear this: the sound of me suppressing a loud laugh). More on that in a moment. But thank you, Mr. Bialik, for finally questioning this statistic.

I do think that the terms "jobs" and "careers" often get confused by researchers or those interpreting researchers' numbers. Bialik also says, "No one knows for sure the true average numbers of careers". That's how I see it, too.

Over the years, when I've done workshops or have sat with an individual client and get asked about it, I've said "That's what 'they' say but I've never seen it".

Just re-reading my first two paragraphs would tell you that I've never believed in the "7 career changes" myth myself, so needless to say, I'm not promulgating the myth, yet it hasn't affected my business.

Do I tell clients that they need to be ever ready for changes and shifts? You bet. Do I tell those laid off that chances are they will get laid off again, so don't stop networking and don't stop planning their next step? You bet. Do I emphasize that whatever career they choose, they think of it not as a job but as a long-term commitment that they need to enjoy AND invest in? Absolutely.

Those aren't myths at all.


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