Debrief Staff | Contributing Writer | 1,093 day ago

It Looks Like We All Get A Three Year Itch With Our Careers

The Debrief: Most graduates will change their careers by the time they reach 24

You think of upping sticks and massively changing your career as something that happens when you reach your mid-thirties, when obligations like a mortgage and imminent procreation means that your totally fulfilling and creative but not at all well-paid job suddenly starts to lose its sheen.

But new research has shown just how out-of-date that stereotype actually is, because these days it looks like many of us get that urge to up-sticks and completely change our careers after only three years. 

According to the poll of 2,000 grads by New College of the Humanities, most of today’s graduates have already changed their careers at least once by the age of 24. Amazingly, only half are in the same field as they were when they left university and a staggering 19 out of 20 have changed jobs at least once within three years of graduating.

A tenth have had three different jobs and a third spent on average only three to six months in each job. Unsurprisingly, a third of the grads polled blamed financial reasons for changing jobs while one in ten went on to start their own business, but two out of five said they main reason for changing careers was to acquire new skills and continue learning. The diligent buggers. While half choose a degree with the intention of working in a particular field, one in seven fail to find a job of their choice on graduating.

It got to the stage when all of my friends were starting to do well in their careers, and I was still living off noodles because I was so broke

It’s certainly true of 24-year-old Olivia O’Donnell. She graduated from Brighton University with a 2.1 in graphic design and desperately wanted to find work on the design desk of a magazine or agency. After finishing a six-month unpaid internship, she thought she was finally on the way to having a career in graphic design.

‘I was taken on by the magazine I interned at for a short, six month contract,’ Olivia tells The Debrief. ‘I assumed that when the six months were up, I’d be offered a permanent contract, but instead they just got another ex-intern in, presumably because they could pay them less. For the next three years, I was freelance doing any work I could find, including going back to interning on the minimum wage just to get a bit more of a regular income.

‘It got to the stage where all of my friends were starting to do well in their careers and some of them were even able to put down a deposit on a house and I was still living off noodles because I was so broke and had no real prospects of my situation improving. There was a point when I was going to have to move back in with my parents, so I sold my laptop, which I relied on for work.

‘That was rock bottom and I’d basically had enough, I decided to re-train as a teacher. Now I have a regular income, a job I love and hope of making more money in the future. I’m glad I tried to make it in graphic design because otherwise I might have always wondered if I could do it, but being a teacher (and having disposable cash) is ace. If I compare how happy I am now to how I was when I was banging my head against a brick wall trying to make it, it doesn’t even compare.’

Very often, graduates are surprised. They start a job they think they’re going to love and then discover it’s not what it’s cracked up to be. 

Tanya de Grunwald, author of How to Get a Graduate Job in a Recession and creator of, for one, isn’t at all surprised by the statistics or Olivia’s story. ‘The days when graduates picked a career aged 21 and stuck with it for life are long gone,’ she tells The Debrief. ‘I think it’s a positive, healthy thing. It shows that today’s graduates are trying something out, learning from it and moving on to something that suits them better. From every job you do, you gain more skills so you become a more useful employee for your next job, even if that turns out to be in a different industry.

‘But you also learn about yourself – what kind of role, work and company suits you best. Very often, graduates are surprised. They start a job they think they’re going to love and then discover it’s not what it’s cracked up to be. It’s really hard to pick your career in a vacuum – either at uni or when you’re not working. Graduates who try and do that often find they make dodgy decisions.

‘You'd be amazed by how many use TV as their main research tool – they pick law because they like The Good Wife, or advertising because of Mad Men. The best time to make decisions about your career is when you have a bit of experience behind you and you’re making lots of good contacts.’

But how much do you know at 24? Shouldn’t you hold out a little bit longer before jumping ship on your planned career? ‘At 24 you have enough experience to be attractive to employers who aren’t up for having to train someone straight out of uni,’ Tanya explains. ‘You’ve cracked how to behave in a professional environment, but you’re young enough that you’re not stuck in the thinking of one industry, or institutionalised at one company.

‘I also think career changers later in life have trouble convincing employers that they really are passionate about the change. They have to work hard to convince employers, who might be thinking, “If you’re that passionate about it, why did it take you until now to realise, or to do anything about it?” 

No job is fun and fascinating 100 per cent of the time, so to a certain extent you have to just suck it up.

‘That being said, “not loving your job” is not a good enough reason to quit a job, especially at a young age. No job is fun and fascinating 100 per cent of the time, so to a certain extent you have to just suck it up. As long as you’re learning something and there are parts of the job you’re enjoying and seeing results from, stick with it for a while – you're gaining good experience that will be valuable in whatever you move on to next.

‘But if you know what you want to move on to and you think you’ve gained the experience and skills you need, there’s no need to hang around for fear a short stay somewhere will look bad on your CV. In today’s fast-changing world of work, everyone is moving more frequently. As long as you can explain each move sensibly in an interview, you don’t need to worry about being viewed as a “job hopper”.’

Far from being put off by it, for Olivia’s new employers, her few years trying to get into graphic design was seen as a massive bonus. ‘My boss has since told me that he liked the fact that I hadn’t come straight out of uni and trained to be a teacher – my other experience meant I could offer the students some pretty practical advice about the reality of the world of work.

‘It actually made me stand out, so I never view any of it as a waste. I would encourage people not to be disheartened if they’re not loving their job – there are other options out there, you just have to find them.’ 

Follow Sophie on Twitter @sophiecullinane 

Tags: Work it, University