These days, many people in their 20s and 30s are eager to push themselves into entirely different careers, whether because the economy is telling them to do so, their ambitions are signaling it’s time for a change, or they’ve been laid off.

Share story

My husband, who is 34, recently quit his federal government job, where he worked on climate-change issues for four years. He left because we decided to move to New York for my work and because he was itching to explore other options.

The news that he is between jobs has not always gone down well with family members and friends. It’s not uncommon for a piteous expression to appear on their faces, at which point they may ask him: “What do you want to do with your life?” At that point, we feel the need to comfort our loved ones and assure them that everything will turn out all right.

These days, many people in their 20s and 30s are eager to push themselves into entirely different careers, whether because the economy is telling them to do so, their ambitions are signaling it’s time for a change, or they’ve been laid off. And if they are childless, this may be a good time to take the financial risk of not working for a while. A result of all this is that career gaps can be an acceptable option for my generation. (I’m 32.)

Quitting without a net
To cope with living in an interstitial state, young people are cobbling together freelance or contract work, or accepting help from their parents. Others have full-time jobs and may either yearn for a new career or feel their companies aren’t investing in them or offering a clear career path. They may be asking themselves, “When is it OK to quit a job without having another one?’ ”

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

Jamie Yang, 34, decided it would be OK to quit. He has plans to leave his position as president of EGG-energy, a renewable-energy company in Tanzania — although he will remain on its board — and does not have another job lined up.

“I don’t expect to find a CEO position available to me in the U.S.,” Yang, who is from the Los Angeles area, writes in an email. He said he was prepared to take a step down the ladder if necessary and was looking for positions that would allow him to work on business development, strategy, product design or management.

According to the Labor Department, adults born in the early 1980s held an average of 6.2 jobs from ages 18 to 26. To baby boomers, many of whom might have had a more linear trajectory in the workplace when they were in that age range, the peripatetic and uncertain nature of today’s workplace can be a source of anxiety when it comes to their children.

“My parents seem a bit nervous that I don’t have anything yet,” Yang says.

Kristen Domingue, 35, who over the last decade has worked at nonprofits and in the private sector, and is now running her own business, Ignite, a personal branding firm based in New York, put it this way: “There is definitely a generational stigma among older people of, ‘Why can’t you figure it out?’ ”

Unplanned breaks happen, too

Sometimes, it takes one of these career interludes to figure out the right path. And they don’t always happen by choice. When Lindsey Pollak, now 40, was laid off from WorkingWoman.com during the dot-com bust in 2001, her boss said she should go start her own business. Pollak finally took that advice after two years of working part time and freelancing.

“It was a devastating transition, but it helped launch me,” says Pollak, who helps people train, manage and market to millennials.

“We are still using previous generations’ career mores to judge people making careers in the new world,” says Pollak, author of “Becoming the Boss: New Rules for the Next Generation of Leaders.” “Twenty, 30 or 40 years ago when someone was in a career transition, it was a loss of identity; now it’s the norm.” (Pollak, who often serves as a generational intermediary, advises parents to tell a child who is experiencing one of these career gaps: “This is totally normal. You’ll get through this.”)

Part of what’s driving career breaks is that so many industries are in upheaval: law, media and financial services, to name a few. Sometimes, either by choice or because of a layoff, young people need to take a step back and figure out how they fit into the new economy. Those who are nimble and can make career course corrections will have tremendous opportunities in the future, Pollak says.

While the conventional wisdom is that employers like to see consistency, the ability to reinvent oneself is gaining currency as a sought-after talent.

“Moving from one career to another is all about listening, and if you are smart, it’s about responding to what the marketplace wants and realigning accordingly,” Domingue says.

Although neither sex is impervious to these lulls, women may not raise as many eyebrows when they tell people they aren’t working.

“There is more cultural acceptance of women moving in and out of the workforce,” Pollak says. “We unfairly expect men to know where they are going.”

That seems to be true for my husband, to some degree. After one too many distressed onlookers responded to his news, I suggested that his career gap needed a rebranding. He wasn’t in between jobs; he was a consultant, just like everyone else.