Quit and avoid the blight of first job syndrome

I was on the wrong side of the demand curve: the supply of economics graduates vastly outstrips the number of traineeships for economists. This was my epiphany during my second year reading the dismal science. Seeking an alternative path, I found myself in the careers centre, taking a job suitability test. While indulging in the great university pastime of fantasising about my potential future importance to society, I confessed all manner of preferences and tendencies. Was I actually meant to be a surgeon? Maybe a barrister? Perhaps a chief executive? The test disagreed on all counts. I would make an excellent prison warden, it declared.

Despite the fact that I went on to make a career out of ignoring such advice, or perhaps because of it, I’m often asked for job guidance. A recent referral, a friend of a friend, was telling me over a drink the other week about how he was thinking of leaving the media sector. The job is far from miserable, but he spends considerable amounts of time doing things he doesn’t like, he explained. He had tentatively concluded that a job in finance — an industry I’ve worked in — might be a better idea. But what did I think? Should he move?

Leave, I told him. Try something else. Finance or otherwise.

He’s been at the same company doing substantially the same job since he graduated several years ago. He is still young and has limited financial commitments. But the thing that worried me most was that he seemed to be suffering from what I call “first job syndrome”. It’s where a person starts behaving like a beaten down puppy with the only employer they’ve ever known. Loyal to a fault, the syndrome’s sufferers are shy to ask for what they want and easily discouraged from further action if they don’t get it. A lack of confidence causes them to believe that no one else will have them or value them as much as their current employer. And, in some cases, they think it will be just as bad wherever they go, partly because everywhere else seems like a foreign country that may or may not even exist. They can at times be as delusional as restaurateurs who think that jam jars are the next wineglass.

My view that those afflicted by first job syndrome are better off moving may make me sound like an over-entitled millennial. But being at the upper bound of the demographic, I’ve observed most of my peers’ progress in the job market for more than a decade. First jobbers are disadvantaged by having an information set that’s much smaller than people who’ve moved jobs. Experiencing the willingness of other companies to employ, integrate and teach you are valuable data, particularly for the less confident.

Management at companies who continue to employ people in their first job may also find the lack of information difficult. It can be hard to figure out the value to place on a person’s skills if they’ve never applied them somewhere else.

I’ve long believed that it was a gift of the financial crisis that most of my 2007 analyst class at a global bank were laid off. As interns the previous summer, most of them had witnessed the time when the industry was still completely drunk on its own self-perceived awesomeness. Going suddenly from a well-paid job to no job at all worked out fine for many, as they often followed paths they enjoyed more anyway.

It looks to have worked out for a colleague’s banking analyst class of 2000 too, according to research he did. Having a good degree, a bit of time at a decent employer, interview skills and a willingness to take a pay cut all count for something.

It follows that the best advice for graduates may be to get their first job with a good employer in a sector where it’s normal to leave after a couple of years. Consultancy, banking, professional services like the Big Four, are all great places in this regard.

Knowing that one could leave a job and find another gives a sense of freedom of choice. With it comes a satisfaction, even joy. It can also make tough times more bearable and it’s something I wish that every person suffering from first job syndrome could experience.

Having written this, it’s probably obligatory to state that I’m rather happy with the current job. But then I know that I could leave to become a prison warden. If I wanted to.

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