Five jobs in five years? No worries

August 19, 2008, 9:51 PM UTC

Today, a question from one of you. Gig reader Kurt writes:

“I’ve been thinking about switching jobs and finding something that will provide better benefits and salary for me and my new wife. But I was typing up a new resume and realized that — at 28 — I have five jobs that are one year apiece. How can I spin that in an interview as a positive? Can I just tell the truth and say that I’m not finding what I need, or do you think that might be a kiss of death?”

Well, Kurt, you’re definitely not alone. And while the job hunt is always stressful — no matter who you are and how great your resume might be — don’t let this particular issue keep you up at night. Because if the recruiters I talk to are any indication, your job-hopping isn’t as unusual as you might think. With more and more of us waiting to settle down and choosing “non-traditional” career paths — such as hostel-hopping through Europe or heading back to Mom and Dad’s while we write the great American novel — we’re less and less likely to stay in a bad job just because we need the money or don’t have other options.

Which is why you’ll hear some HR people say that they can’t get young employees to stay. But that’s actually a good thing for you. Because as more qualified, professional candidates come in with resumes that look like yours, those doing the hiring have been forced to focus less on job tenure and more on real skills and relevant experience.

But what does this actually mean? As discussed in a recent post, “Job-hopping Gen Yers aren’t disloyal, they’re smart,” many twentysomethings are simply opting for opportunities over loyalty. That was certainly the case for me: I came to Fortune at the age of 24, and it was already my fourth job out of school. Did that mean that I was a giant flake without any sense of purpose or commitment? Not really. Instead, it played as evidence of my risk-taking nature and willingness to follow the best gigs, managers, and experiences (or so my bosses tell me). And, ultimately, that made me a more attractive hire for companies that were looking for a person with a specific skillset and perspective, rather than someone they could develop all the way to retirement.

To be fair, I should point out that, while HR folks often say that we’re harder to keep than ever, the numbers don’t necessarily bear out our fickleness: In 2006, the median tenure for workers ages 25 to 34 was 2.9 years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And more than 20 years ago, in 1983, it was…3 years. Not exactly a dramatic drop. (And the same is generally true of younger workers: For those ages 20 to 24, the median tenure was 1.3 years in 2006, and 1.5 years in 1983.)

While there are economic fluctuations from decade to decade that caused some peaks and valleys, it’s possible that this relatively constant tenure number doesn’t yet capture the changing attitudes of young professionals. And one BLS survey found that the youngest Boomers — those born between 1957 and 1964 — held an average of 10.2 jobs between the ages of 18 and 38, a number that will probably just keep going up. Regardless, the fact is that recruiters definitely think we’re more fickle — and they’re starting to forgive us for it.

Of course, that doesn’t mean we should bounce around just for fun. After all, the postscript to my four-jobs-by-24 story is that I’ve now been at Fortune almost four years. And as Gig reader Dan pointed out in his response to the job-hopping post, “those who stay with the same employer for longer tend to get good at what they do,” among other things.

Of course, there are perfectly good reasons to move on, especially if you find yourself an expert at stapling and copying, but not much else. So, Kurt, if you can demonstrate some logic to your career moves, you’ll be in good shape. And in your case, with a new spouse — and the new priorities that (I hope!) come with that — you’re often even more desirable than you would be otherwise because recruiters know that you’re looking for stability.

So when you head into that next big interview, think about how you can show you’re a high performer who’s both learned and contributed in each job — and it won’t matter much whether you stay for one year or 10. (Though it’s probably a good idea to try to stay at least a year, as it’s kind of hard to argue you made a real mark in a job you had for six months.) I’m all for being honest about your struggles to find the right fit, but be sure to make the interview about how you made the best of each role, not how bad they all were. And since you’ll want to reassure the new company that you won’t be headed out the door fast, come with some examples of what makes their organization such a good one for you.

Think of the interview as a chance to tell your story. For so many of us Yers, that’s what work is — an enormous, seamlessly-integrated part of our personal stories that’s even more central because we often don’t have the things that take precedence over work in older people’s lives, like families. So figure out how to frame your career story in terms of trajectory and lessons and goals, and don’t get hung up on the numbers.

If you believe it, they just might, too.

What about you guys? Are your resumes similar to Kurt’s, or are you through with job-hopping?