Time was, your first job after high school or college was likely to be the only one you ever had. Then, in 2008, the Bureau of Labor Statistics revealed that younger baby boomers (those born between 1957 and 1964) held an average of 10.8 jobs over the course of their lifetime, and that between the ages of eighteen and forty-two, 23 percent of the respondents even held more than fifteen jobs.
Fast-forward a single generation, and people now switch jobs more than ever—especially in the teen and young-adult years. I’ve watched my Generation Y cohorts bounce from job to job, many reaching that 10.8-job average in record time. In fact, at age thirty, I have held fourteen steady jobs—not counting babysitting, temp work, freelance gigs, odd jobs, and the few times my tenure at a particular establishment lasted only a day or two.
The jobs that I held in high school, college, and early adulthood didn’t make me rich, but they were all enriching experiences because they exposed me to many people, situations, and industries that I never would have encountered otherwise. I would even go so far as to say that the “worst” jobs—the most menial, underpaid, name tag–requiring positions I ever held—were the ones that taught me the most about life. While young people are switching back and forth between jobs, they’re not just learning about what career they want, they’re also learning about what kinds of people they’re going to be. Before settling into a career, any well-rounded person should have these six different kinds of jobs on his or her résumé.
A Service Job
Whether it’s waiting tables, folding T-shirts, tending bar, scooping ice cream, serving coffee, or ripping tickets at the movie theater, any job in the service industry teaches you more about people and their bad behavior than you ever wanted to know. Customers complain, and they’re demanding, messy, and unreasonable. When you deal with them, you’re forced to learn patience, mental toughness, and how to let that rudeness, anger, and ignorance roll off your back. Service jobs also teach employees to take pride in what they do, even if it the tasks are simple, unglamorous, or painfully easy. If you can learn to take real pride in something as inconsequential as a neatly folded pile of shirts or a perfectly chilled martini, you can learn to be proud of any work you ever perform.
A Job in Which You’re Forced to Clean
You don’t have to be a janitor, housekeeper, or Porta Potty–service person to see firsthand how disgusting people can be. The busboy at the restaurant who pries chewing gum from dinner plates, the barista at Starbucks who has to wear leather gloves while taking out the restroom trash, the office assistant who’s forced to wash the entire department’s lunch dishes … they all know this. Being forced to clean up after others teaches you that most people will take advantage of every opportunity to be messy and not even care about it. Anyone who’s spent time with a mop or rubber gloves learns to see people being dirty or unsanitary and instantly think of the poor soul whose job it is to deal with the filth. There is no magical cleaning fairy—when you’re the person cleaning up others’ messes, it makes you think twice about creating them yourself.
A Childcare Job
There’s something that parents, nannies, daycare workers, and frequent babysitters know that the childless often don’t: taking care of kids is hard. Really, really hard. While children are surely a joy and a treasure, they can also be frustrating, irrational, earsplitting, exhausting, and infuriating. Once you’ve spent your fair share of time changing smelly diapers, putting away toys, helping with homework, playing inane games, tending to the needs of infants and small children, and learning firsthand about parents’ real day-to-day struggles, it makes you think long and hard about whether you want to have your own.
A Job Working for Your Parent
My boyfriend spent a summer stringing rackets at the tennis club his father ran. Seeing his dad at work helped him appreciate all the things in his life that his father’s hard work made possible, and he got to see an entirely different side of his dad: one that worked with employees and customers and ran a bustling business. The first time you see your parents as people with busy professional lives is an eye-opening experience, and witnessing what they do all day can help you understand them better. Working for a parent isn’t always glamorous, but it’s an important lesson in separating the personal from the professional, and it’s a good lesson in accountability. Dad may have gotten you that job in his factory, or Mom may have pulled strings to get you a filing gig at her office, but when it comes to keeping the job, you’re on your own.
Youth is the prime time to load trucks, work in a stockroom, or do other labor-intensive physical jobs, preferably outside in the fresh air. If we’re lucky, it’s something we get to experience for a finite amount of time when our bodies are young and spry, but some people aren’t so fortunate and are expected to do these demanding jobs well past the point when their bodies beg them to stop. When you know what it’s like to be twenty-three and have your back ache at the end of a long day, it’s easier to be compassionate for older workers trying to get through their days.
A Job Totally Unrelated to Your Career Goals
Millions of twentysomethings have “day jobs” while they’re getting college degrees or engaging in other creative pursuits. It’s one thing to wait tables at night and go on auditions during the day, but it’s another thing to work a full-time job doing something you’re completely uninterested in. Even though you may feel that these jobs have nothing to teach you, they can actually impart vital lessons in how to self-motivate, how to develop and maintain a positive attitude, and how to develop skills you may not have training for. Who knows—you may even discover interests or aptitudes you hadn’t considered yet. What’s more, these positions can provide valuable perspective for later positions. When you’ve had the wrong job, you’re more likely to appreciate and treasure the right job when it comes along.
There are a fortunate few who have never had a job that required them to get dirty, to listen to a complaining customer, or to do menial, messy work. Who would disagree that the world would be a cleaner, happier, more understanding place if everyone were forced to wait tables for a year? The experience of having a wide variety of jobs isn’t just about learning to work a cash register or an espresso machine—it’s about learning to be a kind, compassionate person who can show empathy and restraint. In other words, someone who straightens piles of shirts as she browses clothing stores, and someone who always gives the barista a friendly smile. Because she knows how it feels.